Keep the lines of communication open, and learn what signs to watch for in case your child needs help.

Q: Recently my teen has been acting different and closed off. How do I know if this is just normal, teenage attitude or if they may be suffering from a mental illness?

A: It is normal for kids to become moody, especially as they enter into their teenage years, but it is important to recognize when this attitude may reflect more underlying mental health concerns. One in five children is living with mental illness, but because kids can have a hard time communicating how they are feeling, we don’t always know what they are going through. It is important to remain supportive and create a positive environment where your child feels safe and comfortable talking about their emotions.

Always try to remain aware of your child and their emotions and trust your instincts as a parent. Watch for signs that your child is feeling down (e.g. withdrawn, isolating or tearfulness) that last for more than just a few hours or days. Negative emotions or behaviors that don’t just come and go on occasion, but are long-lasting or frequently occurring, are more likely to be of concern.

Other signs to look out for are changes in appetite, sleep disturbance, disregard for personal safety, poor hygiene or talking about self-harm or suicide. In addition, if your child is beginning to struggle in school or with relationships with others, it may be time to have a conversation.

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When it comes to talking to your child about mental health, there are several things you can do to make the conversation easier. First, try modeling openness with your child. By sharing your challenges and feelings, this will demonstrate to them that it is safe to talk about their own feelings. Try to create a safe space for conversation with your child, that is as free from distractions as possible (e.g. turn the television off, put phones down). If you are concerned about them, express this in a calm, nonthreatening tone that shows you want to listen and understand. If you notice warning signs, it is OK to be direct and ask specific questions—just try to ask them in a supportive, thoughtful manner.

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.

Jennifer Reese, Psy.D., is a clinical training coordinator in Big Lots Behavioral Health Services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.