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For many of us, the term “mental health” sounds like something grown-ups think about. But even toddlers can experience acute stress, anxiety, or emotional and psychological complexities and distress. When this happens, early intervention can be the key to helping children thrive at home, at school, and in their neighborhood. And early intervention is at the heart of our work at St. David’s Center. But the first step to supporting children is realizing they are struggling in the first place. So, what are some of the signs and symptoms that show children might need a little more than a warm hug? We’ve compiled six key indicators that children are experiencing stress, anxiety, and other struggles so that parents, caregivers, and teachers can help the children in their lives thrive. 

  1. When Children Change How They Act …

… and show dramatic or abrupt changes in their behavior at home, school, or in their communities. That’s especially true when it comes to “big behaviors” like tantrums, mood swings, defiance, withdrawal, and other ways of acting that are out-of-character or uncommon for the child.   

  1. When Children Have Sudden Setbacks in Their Skills… 

… from potty-training and eating, to reading and solving problems independently, setbacks in development are often normal. But sometimes, they can show that a child needs help. If changes last for several weeks, are severe, or make it hard for a child to get through the day, that’s a great time to see if they need extra care. 

  1. When Children Isolate, Detach, and Retreat…

… from their friends, family, from recess, or at the playground. When children withdraw, they may be much quieter than usual, they might avoid their friends and caregivers, or they might seem “flat” and emotionless. Withdrawal can sometimes go unnoticed because it can be harder to identify than “big behaviors” like tantrums. That’s why paying attention to subtle signs can be key!  

  1. When Children Have Mystery Pains and Illnesses… 

… like stomach aches, headaches, hives and rashes. Other psychosomatic issues can include nausea, shortness of breath or heart palpitations, uncommon tiredness, and difficulty sleeping. Of course, first talk with your doctor to rule out underlying physical health issues! These symptoms can often be expressions of anxiety or stress in young children. 

  1. When Children Start to Struggle at School… 

… and have trouble with learning or focusing in unusual or new ways. This may manifest as trouble with comprehension, trouble following instructions, trouble staying on task, completing assignments, or an overall sudden drop in academic performance. 

  1. When Children Show Aggressive Behavior… 

… like hitting, biting, or kicking. And aggressive behavior can be verbal or interpersonal as well as physical. This can include yelling at and insulting teachers, caregivers, and peers. Or it can include bullying, gossiping, and acting cliquey. Instead of demonizing or punishing such behavior, “get curious,” as we say here at St. David’s Center.  

As with adults, any of these symptoms can be a sign of underlying depression, anxiety, or acute stress. As one of our therapists, Melissa Williams put it, by “sifting” through these unusual behaviors, underlying meanings, causes, and stressors children face can begin to come into focus.  


    Works Cited  

Child Mind Institute. (n.d.). What are the signs of anxiety? Retrieved May 15, 2024 from 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, April 27). Children’s mental health. CDC. Retrieved May 15, 2024, from 

Gazelle, H. (2022). Two models of the development of social withdrawal and social anxiety in childhood and adolescence: Progress and blind spots. Children, 9 (5), 734. 

Medical News Today. Age Regression: Signs, Causes, and Treatment. Retrieved May 15, 2024 

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Effects of early childhood trauma. Retrieved May 15, 2024, from 

Puura, K., Salmelin, R. K., Korja, R., Kataja, E.-L., Lehtonen, L., & Lapinleimu, H. (2022). Early mother-child interactions adversity, shared pleasure, and infant sustained social withdrawal behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 809309. 

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