Recognizing a Mental Health Crisis in Your Child

Father with son

As parents, we put our children’s medical needs first. When our kids have a tummy ache or fever, we don’t hesitate to call the pediatrician. These health needs are easy to identify. But when it comes to our children’s mental and emotional health, symptoms and signs of distress may not be as easy to spot.  

A mental health crisis occurs when a child has thoughts and feelings that can lead them to hurting themselves or others. That interfere with their ability to do everyday things or present a deterioration in their functioning.

Here are tips to help you recognize the signs before and if a mental health crisis in your child occurs.

Signs of distress

Pay attention to behaviors that are contrary to your child’s baseline behavior, such as:

  • Persistent physical aches that continue after a visit to your pediatrician
  • Sudden changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Bed wetting that is inconsistent with expected age development
  • Unusual clinginess, whining or crying

While signs vary from young children to teenagers, signs of a mental health crisis where you should seek immediate professional help include:

  • Significant distress and/or out of control behavior that is difficult to calm down
  • Verbalizing suicidal thoughts or plans
  • Self-injury
  • Harming others and/or animals

Signs you might see in teenagers in need of mental health support include:

  • Isolation and avoiding social activities
  • Drastic mood swings
  • Excessive irritability, anger, worry or fear
  • Distress
  • Deviant or odd behavior or ideas

Signs of a mental health crisis requiring immediate professional help include: 

  • For example, your child is not able to complete school work or study, maintain relationship with others or take care of themselves.
  • Dangerous thoughts or behaviors. This often means thoughts of death and suicide, and/or self-injury
  • Violence
  • Panic attacks
  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness or pessimism


Become informed on mental health and mental illness through books, credible websites, workshops, speaking to professionals, and by speaking to other parents who are in similar situations. You can also build protective factors around your child. Building protective factors are as simple as having family meals together, giving specific praise to your child, monitoring their use of technology and engaging in mindfulness activities. Equally important is being present in your child’s life. This means spending quality time together, fostering open communication, listening without judgement and providing support.

Don’t be afraid to seek help

If you think your child is experiencing a mental health crisis, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. For immediate help, call 911, the Crisis Response Team for your county, or crisis a hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


Maria WintersMaria Winters, LCPC, is a mental health clinician at AAMC. You can reach her at 667-204-7311.