If a parent thinks their child is struggling, they can seek help both through schools and through the health system. (Denise Davy/CBC)

It can be gut-wrenching for a parent to see their child in constant tears, locking themselves away in their room, or throwing fits of anger.  

Experts say these emotions are normal — to an extent. But sometimes they can be signs of deeper mental health issues.

CBC News asked experts on youth mental health what parents should consider if they’re worried about their child.

1. Listen

If you’re worried about your child, listen to what they’re telling you, says Dr. Jackie Goodwin, a psychologist and the team lead of the Insight youth mental health day program.

“Sometimes adolescents do tell us, ‘Hey, I’m not doing so well’ or, ‘I’m really worried about this.’ Or maybe something in their behaviour is signalling that they’re stressed or struggling with something. So I’m always a fan of listening, listening, listening a lot.”

2. Is it persistent?

While it’s the norm for children to be stressed or worried or angry sometimes, if they’re experiencing these emotions most of the time it might be cause for concern.

“If we look at all the negative emotions that young people have, most of them are normal. Most of them are expected and actually most of them are necessary to help build adaptation and resilience,” said Dr. Stan Kutcher, a psychiatrist who specializes in adolescent mental health.

But there is a but.

“If a parent see things such as severe and persistent negative emotions, weeks and weeks of a particular — say sadness, low mood, crying, withdrawn — if they see that, that should be a signal, well maybe this is different than the usual emotional ups and downs of adolescence,” said Kutcher.


Parents often know when something is wrong with their child, says Goodwin. She advises parents to go with their gut. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

3. Is it getting in the way of their routine?

One of the key signs there might be an issue is when the emotions the child is experiencing are getting in the way of their day to day life.

“Things to watch for if they were concerned about their child’s mental health would be a change in routine — sleeping, eating, change in peer group, their habits, maybe some isolation or kind of withdrawing from the community, said Lorna Hutt, the mental health counsellor with the student well-being team in the Westisle family of schools.

Hutt said anxiety is one of the most common issues she sees in the youth she works with.

“Instead of going to school, the child stays at home in their room. Instead of doing well in school as they usually have done, their grades start to drop. Instead of participating in extracurricular activities … they stop doing that,” said Kutcher. “Those are key things that if parents see they can say, ‘Gosh, maybe … something else is going on.'”


A change in routine or behaviour is often a sign that something could be wrong. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

“I always like to say that parents are the best experts in their kids usually,” said Goodwin. “They’ve got a lot of history. Most parents know, I think, when a youth is off track.”

4. Talk of suicide

If a child says they want to kill themselves, it’s important to put that comment into context, said Kutcher.

“Young people use those terms, they use that language when they’re frustrated, when they’re angry,” he said.

“It’s really important not to panic, not to take these things out of context. The important thing here is the parent has to know their child.”

He said if those statements are consistent — that the child expresses suicidal thoughts on a regular or frequent basis — that is cause for concern.

Anxious teen

Statements about suicide can be a big cause for concern, says Kutcher, but it’s important for parents to put them into context. (Paulius Brazauskas/Shutterstock)

Kutcher said family history is also important to look at as suicide does run in the family. 

“If there is a history of suicide in the family, if there are signs and symptoms of a mental disorder that this young person is having, if the discussion of suicide is persistent — then that young person is in a much higher risk category than if a youngster uses those phrases occasionally when they’re angry, upset or feeling badly,” he said.

5. Where to get help

If a parent is concerned, they should seek advice from a professional.

“I always encourage people to reach out and seek help because help in some regard usually helps,” said Goodwin.

Parents can start that conversation with the child’s primary care provider — a family doctor, nurse practitioner or pediatrician.

Parents can also contact Community Mental Health, go to a mental health walk-in clinic or, if the situation is urgent, can go to the hospital emergency department.

Student well-being

Parents can seek help by contacting their child’s primary care provider, community mental health services or their child’s school. If a situation is urgent, they can go to the nearest emergency department. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Hutt said parents are also welcome to contact the student well-being teams at the school their child attends, though those teams are only available in certain schools at this point.

“Parents are welcome to call us,” she said. “They don’t have to have an open file with us or anyone else. We are accessible to parents as well, and work at length with them.”

To reach the teams, parents can call the main line at Hernewood Intermediate — 902-859-8710 — for the Westisle family of schools or the main line at Montague Regional High — 902-838-0835 — for the Montague family of schools.

There are plans to roll the the student well-being teams out in all Island schools by 2019. If a child attends a school that doesn’t have a well-being team, they can contact the school counsellor or principal of the school.

This story is part of an ongoing series CBC P.E.I. is doing on mental health services in the province. You can share your experiences with us here.

This piece by Jesara Sinclair was first seen on ‘CBCNEWS’, 19 December 2017.


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