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.

Want to combat stress? Want to feel happier? Get some sleep!

Sleep may be the secret sauce to address today’s biggest heavy hitters in the emotional issues department – depression, anxiety, and stress. In fact, it is something that many mental health professionals ask in the first intake session. How much are you sleeping? What is the quality of your sleep? Yet, we struggle as a society to elevate the importance of sleep and how we are affected by the lack of it. Our culture emphasizes performance and busy-ness, when we really should be emphasizing self-care, relaxation, and sleep.  As a result, our mental health is paying the price for it.

I am here to suggest we honor sleep. That we cherish it. Am I being dramatic? Maybe, but I believe it is that important.  During sleep our brain “unplugs” and sorts through the material of the day. Sleep gives the brain time to store information for our retrieval later on, it regulates our levels of the stress hormone (Cortisol), and improves our reactions in decision making and problem solving. In fact, insufficient sleep impairs our cognitive functioning in terms of thinking and learning. Who in our world does not solve problems and make decisions on a daily basis? I have read that driving while lacking sleep is the equivalent to driving while intoxicated. It impairs our motor reactions and visual perception.  Other health issues including weight gain, diabetes, a weakened immune system, lower libido, risk of heart attack and stroke, and the risk of certain cancers are all related to insufficient sleep. We should not be surprised that lack of sleep is linked to depression and anxiety, and stress levels. This is all a very big deal, so I guess I’m not being dramatic after all.

Experts suggest we get between 7-9 hours a night, up to 10 for growing children. The buzzword now is to create good Sleep Hygiene, or preparations for a good night’s sleep. I can suggest the following:

  • Prioritizing sleep in your family and with yourself
  • Engage in a family meeting about the importance of sleep
  • Scheduling sleep with the importance you do your work hours
  • Going to bed the same time daily
  • Exercising earlier in the day
  • Limiting screen time the hour before bed
  • Use calming teas and a small snack an hour before bed  to encourage sleep
  • Purge negative thinking by using a journal
  • Practice meditation techniques that calm the body and mind to make it ready for sleep

For more information on the importance of sleep these references may help:

10 Things to Hate About Sleep Loss – WebMD

Get Enough Sleep – Mental Health America

Digital Down-time

It is natural during the winter to spend more time indoors and to gravitate to our computers or the television, to read online and catch up on television series we’ve been wanting to watch – binge watching is a relatively new term to describe this. It is easy to splurge on an hour or so of social media, and sometimes our kids are on Instagram, etc. for even longer time periods.

I get that this is the way we relate now; that this is the future. It is important to note that there is more information arising within the mental health field indicating a real concern around electronic addiction (think social media and video games) that affects our children. But it isn’t just the kids.

I can say that with almost every tween or teen that comes into my office, the topic of electronic use and screen time comes up as a problem at some point along the way. That tells me it is important and we need to talk about it. Electronic or device usage refers to phones, tablets, television, and computers – anything with a screen!

My top 7 suggestions for healthy electronic device usage:

  1. Parents need to be a role model regarding this. I have actually had children and teens complain to me about their parents using electronics too much and not spending time with them!  Or the tween or teen doesn’t take the limits parents set by there parents seriously because their parents seem to use their own devices for long stretches of time.
  2. I think it would be great for the family to record how much time they are using devices recreationally during the course of a day (other than when they are working or doing homework). It may even be more interesting to see what our estimates are and what are actual usage is. It is important to be honest here – one sign of addiction is minimizing use! Denial can also be associated with addiction.
  3. After tracking recreational screen device usage – have a family meeting. Ask the following questions:  Are you surprised to see how much time you/we use our devices?  Is it keeping us from doing other things we might like to do – in other words, if we didn’t have our devices on, what else might we do that we have been wanting to do? Brainstorm other activities that you might like to try as individuals and perhaps as a family, instead of being on our devices.  Is there a hobby you might like to try? Have each member set a goal to start limiting and moderating their device usage and set a time to meet back and discuss how easy or hard it is. This is a time to encourage honesty and not demonize devices, or device usage, instead talk about the concern over online addiction and how it can compromise physical and mental health. Allow your children to be honest in what they share and set realistic goals they think they can master. If they meet their goals perhaps you could set in a reward for the family.
  4. Create OffLine Zones for the whole family, like at the dinner table or going out to eat. I recently saw a family enter a restaurant where I was eating with my husband, and they all sat down, took out their phones, and didn’t even look at each other. Wow.  You could even designate a part of the weekend as Offline – such as Saturday mornings or Sunday mornings (when kids are usually not doing homework) and they have to find alternative things to do.
  5. Using devices is typically a sedentary and indoor activity. Of course we know this isn’t good for physical or mental health. Just deciding to participate in an activity like walking, hiking, biking, or jogging will give you a break from screen time. If you throw in a picnic or going out to lunch (or for an ice cream – I am hopeful for warm weather) it will enhance the experience and lengthen the time away from the devices.
  6. I know of an app called Forest that helps kids or adults exert control over their device usage. When they meet goals (set amounts of time being offline) they grow a tree, and eventually can grow an online forest. Kids really like this app – it makes it fun and is another awareness activity for tracking phone use.
  7. We all know by now that devices can disturb sleep. I know some families that have an Electronic Turn-in at the end of the night so that everyone in the family is free from using their devices after a certain hour (like a hour or so before bed). This can help encourage healthy sleep habits. I have also read that it is not healthy to charge phones or devices in our bedrooms, or by our beds while we are sleeping. Electronic turn-in and charging devices away from bedrooms might be a good idea too.

Creating Calm: For Ourselves and For Our Children

It is no secret that we live in a time of high anxiety.  As adults we navigate the news, weather issues, workplace stress, and family events or emergencies on a daily basis.  Being able to manage our strong feelings around all of these things that are beyond our control is difficult. It is only natural to find that some days we are better able to do this than others.  Each day has a different string of stressors, and we have varying degrees of energy or stamina to meet those demands.

Through the years we develop coping strategies that we have learned keep us calm or safe.  Whether intentional or not, we pass these strategies on to our children. We do it by example, and by what we consciously offer them in times of need.

But what if there was a different way of responding to stress that was more proactive? Could having an understanding of our nervous system help us manage stress before it becomes overwhelming?  If you could do this, wouldn’t you want to do this for your whole family to create a greater sense of well-being?

Throughout the day, your nervous system adjusts to manage the variety of demands of your day. This Stress Response, a chemical reaction to perceived threats in the central nervous system or CNS, can be a positive thing. This response offers many benefits:

  • Motivation to prioritize our time and efforts
  • Energy to meet demands
  • Alertness or focus to increase efficiency

However, when stress levels exceed our ability to meet and manage the challenge, we move into distress. Distress overwhelms the nervous system and we are not as able to meet demands, we can feel shaky, nervous, tired, and depleted.

By activating our Relaxation Response, we are providing equilibrium, or a return to a calmer state from which to respond in a productive way.  Simple strategies can help you activate your relaxation response, allowing you to be more present and productive during stressful situations and manage them in ways that are optimal, wise, and efficient.

This 4 part response can help you reset this CNS response system in order to manage and cope positively to stress and create a sense of calm for your whole family:

  1. The first thing we need to be able to do is be aware of our body when it is stressed and when it is calm. Notice how you feel on an evening stroll or walk, and compare this to how you are feeling when you are meeting a deadline. During your walk you are likely relaxed, hopefully noticing the sights around you, breathing in a relaxed manner, muscles fluid and flexible.  When we are stressed, the feeling is usually the opposite. We are tense, our hearts beating rapidly, breath is shallow and quick. Being aware of how our bodies feel during these episodes is key to being able to manage our stress response.

  2. Once you take notice, you can then start being aware of these symptoms during the course of your day.  When you do notice stress, notice if the feeling is helpful (motivating and helping you manage your work demands) or harmful (overreacting to situations, feeling anxious, or a sense of feeling overwhelmed). Not all stress is bad, we need to view it as a helpful response to our environmental needs. When you are moving into the harmful  or reactive state, it is helpful for you to activate the relaxation response.

    We typically know when we are in a harmful reactive stress state.  We may say things we don’t mean, and experience a flooding of emotions, and are hyper-aroused. We tend to see things as threats that are not intended to be threatening.  It is almost impossible to react in a purposeful, productive, and wise manner when our system is hyper-aroused.

  3. Triggering our relaxation response is not necessarily difficult. It can be as easy as having a cup of tea, or a cold drink, taking a walk outside, listening to music, looking at pictures or videos of people we love or something funny, taking 4 long and slow breaths, stretching and bending our bodies, or finding something to be grateful for.  Our nervous system wants to be responsive and helpful. We just need to learn how to “tap” into the wisdom of our bodies.

  4. It is important for parents to cultivate this practice daily. Parents provide models for their children in managing life. As we practice positive healthy ways of coping, our children will too. I suggest planning a time to relax or unwind for 15 minutes a day. This could be before or after dinner, at the end of the day, or after school. Schools used to promote a DEAR time – or Drop Everything And Read, what about Drop Everything And Relax? When you make this a priority, you give your child tools and insight on how to manage their stress for years to come.

For more information on this topic, including a more specific understanding of the nervous system and details on how to introduce meditation and other calming strategies, see under Digital Downloads.