Umatter for Families logo

Identifying Signs Of Mental Health Challenges

  • What are some common mental illnesses that affect middle schoolers?
  • What are the common factors of mental illness?
  • How do I know if my child is suffering from a mental illness?
  • How can I talk to my child about mental illness and the support we need?

The middle school years are a time of transition from childhood to becoming a teenager. As they  move through middle school, they will have a stronger desire for independence, but often still need adults’ support. Children at this age are learning more about who they are and what groups they belong in.  In addition, they are experiencing emotional and physical changes of puberty, new social environments and relationships and higher demands from school and extracurricular activities.  These can lead to feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, frustration, sadness and in some cases isolation.  

Many of these feelings are temporary or come and go as middle schoolers navigate this time in their lives.  With support, love and guidance, they can come through these years with a stronger sense of who they are and the confidence they need to succeed in high school and beyond. For some, however, the feelings can linger or worsen.  Prolonged periods of worry or sadness (more than 2 weeks) could be a sign of a more serious mental health issue.

Common Mental Health Issues Affecting Middle Schoolers

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 49.5% of adolescents will experience mental illness at some point. The following chart lists the most common mental health issues middle schoolers experience. 


Generalized anxiety

Excessive worry about everyday matters; persistent stress and/or fears that affect their ability to participate in school or enjoy everyday activities

Social phobias

Severe feelings of self-consciousness and insecurity; fear of rejection, humiliation, and embarrassment in social settings


Persistent feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, hopelessness, and/or emptiness

Other, sometimes related mental health issues found in teenagers are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), panic attacks, and eating disorders. In efforts to cope, teens may also develop dependency on substances, like alcohol and other drugs. More severe mental illnesses include bipolar depression or schizophrenia. 

Common Causes of Mental Health Issues

Changes in a middle schoolers mental health can be caused by different factors, including: 

  • Hormone changes – natural chemical changes caused by physical and brain development
  • Heredity – having a family history of mental illness 
  • Environmental factors – problems or traumatic incidents at home or school, abuse, bullying
  • Transitions – changes in home, school, relationships, or family life
  • Stress – worry caused by external triggers, including academic pressure, social situations, or other factors

Why It’s Important

Mental health issues in middle schoolers can be hard to identify for several reasons. First, children at this age are already undergoing lots of changes as a natural part of growing up and going through puberty. They naturally need more space and independence, so they may be less likely to come to you with problems or concerns. Also, they may not understand or be able to explain how they feel or why they are behaving a certain way. As a result, many children who could benefit from treatment don’t get the help they need. Left untreated, mental health challenges can lead to problems at school, substance misuse, unsafe sex, and other issues.

Check In:

Take this brief survey to learn the common warning signs of mental health disorders in middle schoolers and how you can help your child.

The following lists some of the common warning signs of mental health issues in teens. Warning signs will vary, depending on the child and the condition. Check any symptoms your child has experienced for two weeks or longer

  • Persistent sadness  
  • Avoiding or withdrawing from social interactions
  • Angry outbursts or extreme irritability
  • Behavior that is harmful to self or others
  • Poor personal hygiene (not bathing, not caring about their appearance)
  • Major changes in mood, behavior or personality
  • Loss of motivation; lack of interest in usual hobbies or activities 
  • Avoiding friends or social situations
  • Fatigue / Changes in energy levels
  • Changes in appetite, eating habits
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Changes in sleep patterns, insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Frequent unexplained headaches, stomachaches, or other pains
  • Difficulty with concentration or memory
  • Changes in grades or academic performance
  • Avoiding or missing school
  • Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself
  • Talking about death or suicide

If you checked more than five behaviors, and they have been ongoing for longer than 2 weeks, your child may benefit from an initial evaluation by a doctor or mental health professional. Contact your child’s school counselor or your family’s healthcare provider to discuss your concerns.

Connect & Communicate:

Mental health issues in middle schoolers are common and treatable. Often, however, parents and caregivers don’t share their concerns with their child for many months. They may feel that, “It’s just a phase.” or “My child will grow out of it.”  Adults may also worry that the conversation will result in a conflict with their child. 

If your child seems unusually stressed, or if there’s been a major shift in their behavior that lasts over 2 weeks, it’s important to open a conversation with them. Talking with your child about their mental health may be uncomfortable at first. But, it’s important to share your observations calmly and get your child’s input.

Start the Conversation

Here are some ways you can begin talking to your child:

  • “I’ve noticed you haven’t been spending much time with your friends lately. I just wanted to check whether everything is going okay.”
  • “You haven’t had much of an appetite these days. I was wondering if there might be something bothering you?”
  • “You’ve been staying up pretty late and you seem kind of stressed out. Are you worried about anything?”

Your child may become angry or annoyed, or may respond that nothing is wrong. Often middle schoolers feel confused or embarrassed by the symptoms they’re experiencing. 

It’s also possible he or she will be relieved that you have raised the subject. In many cases, children realize they are struggling, but are unsure how to talk about what they’re experiencing.

  • Reassure your child that you are there to support them and encourage them to come to you with questions and concerns.
  • Spend time with your child and seek ways to relax, have fun, and strengthen your bond with them. Praise your child’s strengths and abilities.
  • Help your child focus on their physical health, too. Make sure they get enough sleep and exercise and are eating a balanced diet.  
  • Explore stress management techniques to support your child’s and your own mental health and help you respond calmly.
  • Try to normalize mental illness by sharing stories or studies about it.  Find characters from movies and books or people in your personal life who have had happy and productive lives despite their illness.

Contact & Collaborate:

As a parent or caregiver, you have an important role in supporting your middle schooler’s mental wellbeing. If you think your child may have a mental health issue, reach out and get the support you need to help them feel better. 

  • If your child’s mental illness is at a crisis level (e.g., they have harmed [or threatened to harm]  themselves or others), call 911 or go to your local emergency room.
  • Schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor: Let the doctor know your concerns and give your child the opportunity to speak to the doctor in private. The doctor may recommend a follow-up appointment with a mental health professional.
  • Work with your middle schooler’s guidance counselor, the school nurse,  and other school personnel to secure necessary support. 
  • Ask the school psychologist, therapist or other mental health professional for advice on how to respond to your child and handle difficult behavior.
  • Contact other trusted adults in your child’s life (relatives, clergy, teacher, sports coach) so they can help support him or her, too.
  • Consider family counseling with a licensed therapist. 
  • Reach out to your health insurance or state/county mental health authority for more support.
  • Set important phone numbers on your phone. For example: 
    • The phone number for a trusted friend or relative
    • The Crisis Text Line: 741741
    • The non-emergency number for the local police department
    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


Read Books:  Look for books that address mental illness in young adults and ask your child about them while they are reading. Here is a list to get started.  Your local library should also have suggestions:

Continue Learning:

You will play an important role in ongoing support and monitoring of your teen’s mental health.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email