Child and Adolescent Mental Health
Mental health is an important part of overall health for children as well as adults. For many adults who have mental disorders, symptoms were present—but often not recognized or addressed—in childhood and adolescence. For a young person with symptoms of a mental disorder, the earlier treatment is started, the more effective it can be. Early treatment can help prevent more severe, lasting problems as a child grows up.
It can be tough to tell if troubling behavior in a child is just part of growing up or a problem that should be discussed with a health professional. But if there are behavioral signs and symptoms that last weeks or months, and if these issues interfere with the child’s daily life at home and at school, or with friends, you should contact a health professional.
Young children may benefit from an evaluation and treatment if they:
- Have frequent tantrums or are intensely irritable much of the time
- Often talk about fears or worries
- Complain about frequent stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause
- Are in constant motion and cannot sit quietly (except when they are watching videos or playing video games)
- Sleep too much or too little, have frequent nightmares, or seem sleepy during the day
- Are not interested in playing with other children or have difficulty making friends
- Struggle academically or have experienced a recent decline in grades
- Repeat actions or check things many times out of fear that something bad may happen
Older children and adolescents may benefit from an evaluation if they:
- Have lost interest in things that they used to enjoy
- Have low energy
- Sleep too much or too little, or seem sleepy throughout the day
- Spend more and more time alone, and avoid social activities with friends or family
- Diet or exercise excessively, or fear gaining weight
- Engage in self-harm behaviors (such as cutting or burning their skin)
- Smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs
- Engage in risky or destructive behavior alone or with friends
- Have thoughts of suicide
- Have periods of highly elevated energy and activity, and require much less sleep than usual
- Say that they think someone is trying to control their mind or that they hear things that other people cannot hear
Mental illnesses can be treated. If you are a child or teen, talk to your parents, school counselor, or health care provider. If you are a parent and need help starting a conversation with your child or teen about mental health, find resources for families from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. If you are unsure where to go for help, ask your pediatrician or family doctor or visit NIMH’s Help for Mental Illnesses webpage.
It may be helpful for children and teens to save several emergency numbers to their cell phones. The ability to get immediate help for themselves or for a friend can make a difference.
- The phone number for a trusted friend or relative
- The non-emergency number for the local police department
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Alters Brain Activity in Children With Anxiety
• Press Release
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health found that unmedicated children with anxiety disorders show widespread overactivation in brain functioning and that treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy led to a clinically significant drop in anxiety symptoms and improved brain functioning.
- Researchers Expand Understanding of Genetic Mechanisms Underlying Fragile X Syndrome
• Research Highlight
An NIMH-supported study of the 3D genome revealed widespread silencing of genes with important roles in brain function in fragile X syndrome and related disorders.
- High School Students Invited to Reflect on Mental Health Stigma in National Essay Contest
• Institute Update
The National Institutes of Health is inviting high school students ages 16-18 to participate in an essay contest on the topic of mental health stigma.
Health topics and resources
Featured health topics
- Anxiety Disorders
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Bipolar Disorder
- Coping with Traumatic Events
- Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder
- Eating Disorders
- Medications: Children and Teens
- Suicide Prevention
Featured brochures and fact sheets
- Get Excited about the Brain!: This science education activity book intended for children ages 8-12 years old helps kids learn facts about the brain through games and puzzles about brain science and research.
- Getting to Know Your Brain: Dealing with Stress: Test your knowledge about stress and the brain. Also learn how to create and use a “stress catcher” to practice strategies to deal with stress.
- Guided Visualization: Dealing with Stress: Learn how the brain handles stress and practice a guided visualization activity.
- Stand Up to Stress!: This free, printable coloring and activity book for children ages 8-12 teaches kids about stress and anxiety and offers tips for coping in a healthy way.
- Stress Catcher: This is a printable, "fortune teller" craft for children that offers coping strategies to help manage stress and other difficult emotions.
- Child Mental Health : The National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus offers resources to support children’s mental health (en español ).
- Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health : This Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report provides data and statistics about mental disorders in U.S. children.
- Parents & Educators : The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides science-based information and lesson plans about drug use, health, and the developing brain.
- Self-Harm : Self-harm refers to a person harming their own body on purpose and it tends to begin in teen or early adult years. MedlinePlus offers resources to learn more about self-harm (en español ).
- Shareable Resources on Children and Adolescent Mental Health: Use these digital resources from NIMH, including graphics and messages, to raise awareness about the importance of child and adolescent mental health.
- Teen Mental Health : MedlinePlus provides resources about adolescent mental health (en español ).
Learn about symptoms of irritability, why it's important to study irritability, NIMH-supported research in this area, and new treatments for severe irritability in youth.
Got 60 seconds? Take a mental health minute to learn about stress and anxiety in adolescents.
Got 60 seconds? Take a mental health minute to learn about attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline : The Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States. Call or text 988 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. Support is also available via live chat at 988lifeline.org . Para ayuda en español, llame al 988.
- Disaster Distress Hotline : People affected by any disaster or tragedy can call this helpline, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to receive immediate counseling. Call or text 1-800-985-5990 to connect with a trained professional from the closest crisis counseling center within the network.
- TXT 4 HELP : Created by National Safe Place, this nationwide, 24-hour text service provides support for teens in crisis.
- More NIH Information Lines
Children are not little adults, yet they are often given medicines and treatments that were only tested in adults. There is a lot of evidence that children’s developing brains and bodies can respond to medicines and treatments differently than how adults respond. The way to get the best treatments for children is through research designed specifically for them.
Should your child participate in a clinical study?
Parents and caregivers may have many questions when they are considering enrolling a child in a clinical study, and that children and adolescents also want to know what they will go through. NIMH is committed to ensuring that families trying to decide whether to enroll their child in a clinical study get all the information they need to feel comfortable and make informed decisions. The safety of children remains the utmost priority for all NIMH and NIH research studies.
For more information, visit NIH Clinical Trials and You: For Parents and Children . To find studies for children and teens being conducted at NIMH, visit Join a Study: Children. Find a clinical trial near you .
Last Reviewed: March 2023
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