6 Youth Mental Health Warning Signs: What All Educators & Families Should Look For

There are many behaviors in teens that may seem irritating or problematic to adults but are actually developmentally normal for most kids. Things like general moodiness, changes in sleep patterns, being sensitive about how they look or how others may perceive them, and more. Some of these behaviors are typical and not necessarily a sign of a mental health issue.

But, is it important for adults to pay attention to a teen’s overall functioning to determine if sadness, anxiety, or anger are signs of a more serious mental health problem. Consider how they are functioning at home, at school, and in the community and how quickly they are able to recover from stressors or other obstacles in life. Are they participating in family life? What are their relationships at home like? How are they engaging with their peers? Are they participating in class? Are they participating in the activities and programs they used to enjoy participating in?

As the youth mental health crisis continues to intensify, educators and families need to be on the lookout for early warning signs in teens so that early intervention is possible. 

Here are 6 signs you should look out for:

  1. Mood: With the symptoms related to mood, it’s important to consider if they are happening all of the time and to what intensity. Are they experiencing sadness to the point of isolation and can’t get out of bed? Are they continually breaking curfew, sneaking out, skipping school? If the answers to these questions are “yes” and they are happening with frequency, they may be indicators of a mental health challenge.
  2. Interpersonal Issues: As kids continue to grow, they will go through social and development changes. But, there are some things to watch out for like if they are spending more and more time alone or not wanting to spend time with friends at all. Also look for signs of aggression, bullying, and the inability to respect other people’s emotional and physical boundaries. This includes physical aggression like threats and getting into fights and relational aggression like gossiping and intentionally leaving people out. As adults, we often look for behaviors to tell us a story that something else could be going on.
  3. Safety: Safety concerns can be scary and feel intimidating. But it is important to try and open up a dialogue and let your kids/students know you can handle their suffering if you suspect there may be safety concerns such as non-suicidal self-injury or self-harm, suicidal thoughts/acts, or harming others.

    Adults should look out for maladaptive coping skills which can include things like social withdrawal, substance use, overcompensation or even being unwilling to take other approaches to help solve their problems. On the more serious side, self-harm and suicidal ideation could be occurring.

    There are skills that can be taught so that teens can learn to build the skills they need to deal with future problems. At Daybreak, our 12-week virtual therapy program focuses on skill building and other techniques to find other, healthier ways to cope. 

*Parents and educators should immediately reach out to a mental health professional or medical provider if you notice concerning behaviors or suicidal ideation in your child/student.*

  1. Health & Nutrition: Teens often feel pressure to maintain a certain body image or size. As a result, you may see teens restrict their food intake, over-exercise, or binge eating. Some kids use food to maintain a sense of control over their body when they feel out of control in other ways. This can lead to severe health issues. It is important to be aware of their eating habits, exercise routines, and changes in their weight.
  2. Addiction: Young people are often influenced by the group of friends they hang out with and sometimes this can expose them to a variety of negative and potentially dangerous situations—both in-person and online. Some signs of substance use or other types of addiction include: personality and mood changes, drugs going missing from the homes of family or friends, a change in peer group, carelessness with grooming, a decline in academic performance, missing classes or skipping school, loss of interest in favorite activities, changes in eating or sleeping habits and/or deteriorating relationships with family members and friends.
  3. Negative Beliefs: Adolescents struggle with insecurities as they try to make sense of their world and some will develop negative beliefs about things they can’t control. These insecurities and negative beliefs will often lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and anger, and can interfere with relationships and academic success. Adults can help kids cope with disappointments by changing the “I can’t” mentality to “I will try” in order to problem solve the challenges that they are facing.

3 Strategies for parents if you noticing concerning behaviors in your child:

  1. Set aside 1:1 quality time with your child doing activities like cooking a meal together, watching a movie, or learning a new hobby. 
  2. Get to know their friends and their friends' parents. Invite their friends over, ask one of their parents to grab coffee, plan an activity with your child, their friend, and their parents. 
  3. Don’t be afraid to be in communication with your child’s school. Ask questions about how your child is doing and get involved as much as you can.

5 Strategies for educators if you noticing concerning behaviors in one of your students:

  1. 2x10 Relationship Building: Sit with at-risk students for 2 minutes per day for 10 days in a row during group work, passing period, or student work time. Talk to them about anything they want, including things from your own life. Consider fun, low-stress questions to help build rapport (i.e. “If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?”)
  2. Hand out Talk Tickets: Schedule one-on-one talks with students to address specific issues or challenges they are having in or outside of school. These can take place on a recurring basis if you’d like. 
  3. Use a Personalized Student Record Sheet to remember details you learn about students during your conversations so you can form personal connections with them over time. It can be hard to remember the details of so many students’ lives! Here's a free, printable record sheet that can help you and includes questions you can use to prompt meaningful conversations with your students.
  4. Build community in your classroom with Restorative Circles, which help to establish respectful and empathetic communication norms in your classroom community.
  5. If you notice that a teen is having difficulty forming peer relationships, consider connecting them to peer counselors on your campus to help them form bonds with their peers.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.