Part 3: Guiding Your Child Through Their Mental Health Journey
While mental health is as important as both physical and nutritional education, it’s often the one talked about the least. Having a good relationship with your mental health also promotes wanting to eat better and be more active. Oftentimes children may have feelings of anxiety, depression and generally feeling down. They don’t necessarily want to discuss these things and this can lead to feeling like “something is wrong with me.”
It’s worth it to discuss what mental health actually means, as there’s often some confusion on what it includes. Mental health includes a person’s social well-being, emotional state and overall psychological state. While a child may not have any traumatic life events to trigger a negative mental state, genetics or chemistry can cause issues with mental health as well. It’s important to pay attention to changes in behavior and know that severe changes in mood and day-to-day function, could mean your child is struggling.
Some signs to watch out for include but are not limited to:
Trouble sleeping through the night, staying asleep, or sleeping for excessive periods of time
Sudden and unpredictable mood swings
New confrontational behaviors with friends/family
Feelings of stress, anxiety or general overwhelming feelings
Sudden changes in grades at school
Constantly “zoned-out” or inability to communicate
New destructive behaviors
Constant feelings of exhaustion
Hearing negative voices or feelings of ending their life, or the lives of others
Teaching children that these feelings are not “wrong” or “unusual” sets a good space to talk about emotions and find healthy coping mechanisms. The challenge is that most schools do not have a formal plan for mental health education. Though in 2018 bills were passed in some states to make mental health more of a priority, the level of education and age range it is taught, varies. Specifically, Virginia and New York created new guidelines. While New York has a plan to educate those in K-12, Virginia only focuses on students in high school. “With that in mind, they decided that the best approach would be a statewide educational program that would explain the brain science behind mental illness, help students learn how to improve their own mental well-being, and reduce the stigma around mental health.” 1
For information regarding mental health education in your specific state, you can look this up online, or reach out to your child’s school.
The problem happening in places like Virginia, is that education on mental health doesn’t begin until high school. While high schoolers probably feel the most pressure at this age to “fit in” or look like others, these negative thoughts often begin well before 8th or 9th grade. Especially with the growing presence of social media in student’s lives, they are exposed to a lot of misinformation about living a “healthy” lifestyle. It’s never too early to be on the lookout and establish healthy communication! Below are some tips for promoting mental health at home.
1) Do not fear discussing behavioral changes with a doctor or psychiatrist
Discussing mental health or the need for a psychiatrist shouldn’t be the “taboo” topic I grew up with. We all struggle to deal with difficulties in our lives, and seeking help does not make you “weak” or “less than.” Parents should not feel like they are failing by consulting with a doctor. Making use of your resources is ok! If you notice your child’s behavior is changing and they display some of the symptoms above, consult your doctor. Maybe it’s nothing, but children should grow up knowing it’s ok to talk about what’s “wrong” and seek help.
2) Create space for open dialogue
It’s so much easier to talk about problems when we are in a “judgement free” zone. While you may not mean any harm in your responses, being aware of making statements that could come off as judgemental or dismissive, is really helpful in establishing a safe space for communication. If you’re talking to someone and they brush off what you say and respond with things like, “Oh that’s not a big deal,” or “get over it,” you feel invalidated and often don’t wish to talk about problems with them anymore. That doesn’t mean that the person means any harm, but it’s not what you need to hear.
The key to being a good listener is acknowledgement. Acknowledge that your child is having a specific feeling, and that it’s valid. While you may not understand why they are having the feeling, or why it’s impacting them so greatly, that doesn’t change the fact that they are struggling. We all deal with problems differently and that doesn’t make anyone “right” or “wrong.” So make sure your child knows that you respect their feelings and it’s ok to feel things differently than others.
3) Talk about your experiences
Talk about what’s going on with your life too. While you need to protect your child from certain things going on in the home and the world around them, you don’t need to pretend everything is ok all the time. Talk about how your work day was rough or the weather makes you feel a little bummed. It doesn’t have to be a big production to talk about your own feelings, you don’t have to break down and cry or scream about issues at the dinner table. In fact, setting an example of overdramatic responses to situations is not helpful. What is helpful is your child seeing that you also have ups and downs to your day, that life has its struggles and there’s nothing wrong with everyday not being perfect. Also, seeing that it’s normal to discuss everyday feelings.
4) Don’t hide experiences with therapy etc.
You don’t have to hide the fact that you see a therapist from your child. Remember that taking care of yourself and your mental health is not a bad thing. And your child seeing that you have your own issues but you look for solutions, is such a valuable lesson. No one should feel that they have to just “deal with” depression, anxiety or general stress without help.
5) Pay attention to small comments and frequency
Sometimes children are just dramatic, and we may chalk comments up to “drama,” but just pay attention to those comments and how often they are making them. Constant or frequent negative self talk is something that should be addressed.
6) Notice activity levels
If your child all of a sudden is having trouble sleeping, having nightmares, sleeping longer than normal, or constantly feeling tired even after sleeping, talk with your doctor. These noticable changes in sleeping patterns may be caused by something larger. So make sure to speak to a doctor if this is an ongoing issue and discuss the best option to help.
7) Provide healthy outlets for negative thoughts etc.
Activity is a huge factor in stress relief. That’s another reason why children getting at least 60 minutes of activity a day is so important. We may not think a child should be stressed, but feelings of stress can impact us all! Making sure your child is active and involved in sports or gets lots of movement in, helps them to relieve stress and any possible negative aggression. Also, the general discipline from group activities can really help a child to learn boundaries and priorities.
8) Promote getting plenty of sleep!
We all are not our best selves when we don’t get enough sleep, and remember that children need more sleep than adults. Typically a 3-5 year old needs 10-13 hours of sleep including naps, and a 6-12 year old needs 9-12 hours including naps. Not getting enough sleep can lead to loss of mental focus, behavioral issues, poor eating habits, and so much more. So make sure that your child is getting enough sleep. Oftentimes, this alone can be the gamechanger!
9) Talk about how you cope with stress and challenges
Sharing what you do to relieve stress with your children is ok. Maybe you go for a walk, knit, or listen to music. Whatever you do to relieve stress, share with your child. It can be such a casual conversation that also helps to open up lines of communication. Maybe they’ll like it too, but either way they should know that they have options to feel better. Let your child try out hobbies and home activities and see what works for them!
While mental health issues can be quite unpredictable, having tools at your disposal can really prepare you to support your child. Remember that we all struggle and to not let it get you down as well. It can be so easy to blame ourselves for the struggles of others, but it’s not your fault. Also, keep in mind there are a ton of resources for parents of children with mental health issues. So many parents are going through this and can give you advice. Always know you're doing your best!
Until next time.... and remember health is for all!
1) “States Begin Requiring Mental Health Education In Schools,” National Alliance on Mental Health, June 23, 2018. Accessed April 9, 2021 https://namivirginia.org/states-begin-requiring-mental-health-education-schools/