Health Information

How to Help a Child in Distress

As young people grow, each new experience brings a new challenge to overcome and often they will need guidance and support from you – the trusted adult in their life.  

The majority of mental illnesses begin in adolescence and addressing mental illnesses early can help to reduce the impact of symptoms. However, as many as 5 in 6 young people will not receive that help¹.   

It can be difficult to know what’s going on in the brain of a young person but you don’t need to be a professional to notice when they are struggling. You should be concerned by changes in behaviours that are disproportionate to the situation, don’t disappear over time, interfere with day to day activities, and cause significant distress².

If you notice something that causes you to worry, demonstrate concern for their well-being, and help them to get help.  Here are some tips:

  • Keep an eye out for any changes in a young person’s mood, behaviour, presentation, or performance
  • Demonstrate concern for their well-being – connect with them individually, let them know what is worrying you, and ask if they would like to talk about it with you or a professional
  • Avoid judgment – it can be scary to hear when our children are in pain but we want them to have positive experiences talking to adults so that they will keep doing it and get the help they need
  • Get help – you may not know what’s out there until you need it but there are many local services that can help
  • Make a list of people who are on your team and connect with them for help – this could include your primary care provider, a community mental health agency, the young person’s school, and your loved ones

The best way to help someone in distress is to be informed:

  • Know your child and maintain open and honest dialogue with them regularly
  • Know when something seems unusual about them – mental health problems can show up in many ways:
    • How they present themselves
    • Their behaviour, emotions, or energy levels
    • Their performance in activities, absences
  • Know the resources for mental health support in your community
  • Make promoting positive mental health a part of your family life – discussions on mental health aren’t reserved for one day a year, make it a part of the fabric of your day by role modelling positive coping strategies, encouraging open conversation about difficult topics, and avoiding judgmental language
  • Don’t wait if you notice something, say something – you may have one piece of information that, when combined with pieces from other adults, their friends, or online, could indicate help is needed immediately
  • Get informed by participating in training provided locally, becoming mental health literate by using reputable sources online, and learning the pathway for getting help in your community
  • Take care of your own mental health. In order for us to be able to give to others, we need to have enough for ourselves (practice self-care, connect with loved ones, and seek help for yourself when you need to)

  1. MHASEF Research Team. (2015) The Mental Health of Children and Youth in Ontario: A Baseline Scorecard. Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences; As quoted in Children’s Mental Health Ontario
  2. School Mental Health ASSIST: Recognizing and Responding to Anxiety in the Classroom