Pediatric HealthSource: Talking to Your Child's Doctor about Mental Health Concerns

Cody Hostutler

Q: My child can be all over the place emotionally at times—acting out one day and shutting down completely the next. When should I talk to their doctor about potential mental health concerns?

A: Big feelings are common in children and teens, and they can be overwhelming for both kids and caregivers. It is often difficult to determine what is normal and when it is time to seek additional help. Knowing the signs and symptoms to watch for can help parents decide whether to seek professional support.

Parents know their child best, and they are usually the first to notice when their child is acting out of the ordinary. In both children and adolescents, signs that someone may be struggling with a mental health concern include:

  • Withdrawal from friends, family and activities
  • Sleep problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased worry, fear or anxiety about school or other events
  • Sudden and intense mood changes
  • Physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Having thoughts about self-harm or suicide

It is particularly important to seek help from your doctor if symptoms are consistently getting in the way of normal routines, success at school or friendships, or they have expressed a desire to harm themselves or others in any way.

Even when you think your child’s emotions may be age-appropriate, if you are frequently feeling overwhelmed by them, your child’s physician may have some ideas that can help. Early intervention and prevention work best, so if you are unsure, let your child’s doctor know your concerns earlier rather than later. 

Always consult your child’s pediatrician concerning your child’s health.

For more information about children’s mental health and to help break the stigma around mental illness, visit onoursleeves.org.

Cody Hostutler, Ph.D., is a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

It’s vital that parents don’t wait for a crisis to address a possible mental health concern. To start the conversation and keep it going, parents should:

  • Be direct, ask questions: Even if a child is doing well, checking in regularly about how they’re feeling and what’s going on in their life helps them be emotionally open.
  • Use emotional language: Many children need practice to grow comfortable talking about how they feel. By modeling talking about your feelings, a child will learn that communicating about their feelings is normal, safe and important.
  • Know who to call for help: If your child needs immediate help due to having suicidal thoughts, go to your local emergency room immediately, call the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273 TALK (8255) or text “START” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. If you believe an overdose has occurred, call the national Poison Control hotline at 800-222-1222.

Encourage Communication

1557175007