Signs of Emotional Distress in Children

It can be difficult to tell if a child is experiencing emotional distress. Children express their feelings differently than adults. They may not have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate sadness, anxiety, anger or other complex emotions. However, there are several behavioral signs that may indicate a child is struggling with their mental health. Being aware of these signs can help parents, teachers and caregivers identify when a child needs support.

Changes in Behavior

Sudden changes in behavior or personality can signal emotional turmoil. For example, an outgoing child who becomes withdrawn, quiet and solitary may be depressed. A well-behaved child who starts getting into fights at school could be acting out due to inner anguish. Pay attention if a child stops enjoying activities they used to love or loses interest in seeing friends. These types of shifts in behavior can reflect internal suffering.

Excessive Worry or Fear

All children have fears and worries at various developmental stages. But excessive fear, worry or avoidance of certain places, people or activities could stem from anxiety. If a child’s fear is interfering with their daily life, relationships or academic performance, there may be an underlying emotional issue that needs addressing. For example, a child may be experiencing bullying, abuse or trauma that parents or teachers are unaware of.

Poor Academic Performance

A sudden drop in grades or performance at school can sometimes reflect emotional troubles. While stress at school itself may be a factor, there could also be problems at home, issues with peers or other personal struggles impacting the child’s education. Along with poor grades, signs of concern include missed assignments, disinterest or “giving up”, cheating and skipping school.

Physical Symptoms

Mental health struggles sometimes manifest physically in children. Headaches, stomachaches and other pains can stem from emotional causes. Emotional distress can also lead to changes in appetite and sleep disturbances. Kids who are sad, anxious or depressed may have low energy and fatigue. Take note if physical complaints increase and cannot be explained with a medical cause.

Anger and Irritability

Children cope with internal suffering in different ways. Some withdraw socially, while others lash out. Increased anger, irritability, defiance and tantrums can occur when kids are overwhelmed by their emotions. A child who seems quick to anger, picks fights with peers or has violent outbursts should be evaluated for any underlying emotional or psychological factors.


In some cases, children turn to self-harming behaviors such as cutting, scratching, hair-pulling or taking dangerous risks when experiencing intense distress. Any evidence of self-harm warrants immediate attention. Other signs include wearing long sleeves or pants in warm weather to hide injuries.

If you observe any of these signs, consider seeking professional help for the child. Ongoing emotional issues can lead to long-term mental illness, substance abuse, and serious self-harm without intervention. Counseling, therapy and other treatments can help children better cope with and manage their emotions. With support, children can gain insight into their feelings, process difficult experiences, relieve distress and regain their natural resilience.

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