Your Child’s Mental Health is More Important Than You Think

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I can think of no better place to focus our attention than on our children and families.

1 in 6 children aged 2-8 years has a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder, according to recent statistics at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and behavioral and mental health concerns are even more common as kids get older. ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed disorder, then behavioral problems, followed by anxiety and depression.  According to this report, diagnoses of depression and anxiety in kids aged 6-17 years, have been steadily increasing. As a mental health provider serving children, I am not surprised by this report.

We live in a competitive world and our young people shoulder high expectations. We also live in a world where the public has greater access to understanding and seeking help for emotional concerns. I do see the stigma lifting in young people and their parents seeking and accepting help for emotional regulation (specifically anxiety, depression, impulse control, and anger). More often than not, I hear parents report that they are not putting pressure on their children, rather their child seems to have high expectations of themselves. After all, a lot is riding on their ability to perform and excel. But how do we know when our children are in need of additional support, and how can parents offer to help their child through the difficult times?

3 Signs That Your Child Is Stressed:

  • Having difficulty sustaining and initiating social relationships – these are the key to a full and happy emotional life for teens especially, as they move into the world outside of home.
  • Having a change of eating and sleeping patterns. A change in eating patterns may or may not produce weight loss or gain, but notice what and when they are eating. Also, sleep has become something teens seem to think they can do without. Growing children should be getting about 9 hours a night of sleep. They need this for physical health, and also for brain health. The brain organizes information when you are sleeping, and it is also an opportunity for kids to physically grow. Many kids report having trouble falling or staying asleep, and this can be a sign of a larger problem.
  • Extreme mood fluctuations or irritability can be a sign of deep feelings of anxiety or depression. Often as kids get older they feel the desire to solve problems on their own. They can pull away from parents and begin to rely on their peers for validation and support. However, they may not be getting the type of support they need. Kids who struggle with flexibility or change may need additional support.

5 Tips to Support Your Child’s Mental Health:

  1. Check in with them about their feelings on a variety of things.
    I notice that most families don’t really talk about their feelings unless they are angry. Be sure to share your feelings about your day with your child and encourage them to share their feelings with you.  This can include sharing empathetic feelings about the situations others are going through and encouraging them to listen to the feelings of others. Even if you are reading a story or watching a TV show, talk about the characters and feelings you both are having or your reaction to the story line.
  2. Listen more than you talk. Most parents think they need to offer advice to their teens, but they are much more receptive to being with you if you listen. Chances are, what you would like to say to them has already been said. Asking them questions, like, “How do you feel about that?” or “That’s a tricky problem, how would you go about solving it?” lets them know they are heard and gives them space to figure out solutions.
  3. One of the best things you can offer your child is a consistent schedule of sleeping and eating, and creating healthy choices in those routines. In other words, eating fast food on the way home from soccer practice nightly is routine, but it is not encouraging a healthy eating practice.  Families are under a lot of stress to manage these extracurricular activities, but healthy eating and sleep hygiene are essential to good mental health. This also instills trust and reliability in feeling cared for.
  4. Know how to set limits with electronics and start early. Younger kids shouldn’t be on electronics more than 2 hours a day. Encourage family, social, or outside activities instead. Follow these rules yourself for limiting screen time.
  5. Get outside. Walk, run, picnic, play a yard game, garden, ride bikes, play tennis… You get the idea!  Every day, get outside for 10 minutes, at least. It helps clear the mind, helps the body manage stress, and offers an opportunity to have fun and listen to your child.

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