Many parents understand the importance of keeping their kids physically healthy, but sometimes the importance of mental health is overlooked.
“Children are going through a lot of rapid development physically, mentally, and emotionally. Many of their mental and emotional systems are coming ‘online,’ and they’re learning how to interact with their emotions and the world around them,” said Nick Norman, clinical therapist and business relationship manager at Seattle-based Mindful Therapy Group.
We chatted with Norman recently for his insights on how parents can better support their children’s mental health.
What does mental health look like in childhood?
Children communicate with their bodies to a significant degree, so when a child’s mental health takes a downward turn, it often manifests as behavioral issues and physical symptoms, such as issues with appetite or sleeping. Serious issues may manifest as disassociation or becoming very “unemotional” as they turn away from discomforting emotions.
What causes mental health difficulties in younger people?
Difficulties with mental health often occur when something in the child’s larger environment is out of sync. Change or discord at home or in their social world can have strong impacts on a child’s mental health. More serious concerns such as domestic abuse will also have a dramatic effect on their mental and emotional states.
What behaviors/disorders are common for kids struggling with mental health?
The most common diagnoses in children range from mood disorders like anxiety and depression to behavioral problems and learning disorders, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder. Children exposed to extreme trauma can also experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As children make their way into their teenage years, eating disorders can also become common.
How many children are estimated to be struggling with mental health problems?
It’s difficult to define a specific number, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates an estimated number for the four most common diagnoses in childhood:
- ADHD 9.8% (approximately 6 million)
- Anxiety 9.4% (approximately 5.8 million)
- Behavior problems 8.9% (approximately 5.5 million)
- Depression 4.4% (approximately 2.7 million)
Note that some of these can occur simultaneously. Commonly, anxiety and depression are co-occurring.
What signs should parents be looking for if they are concerned about their child?
How should they approach the situation? A few things to look for are emotional withdrawal; emotional outbursts or acting out; downturns in performance at school; and physical symptoms like stomachaches, sleeping troubles, and dramatic changes in appetite.
The first thing to do is to create time for your child and to make space for them to talk and truly express themselves. Ask them how they’re doing, and truly listen. If problems are persistent, seek the help of a mental health professional.
Should you give kids mental health days?
The key to the effectiveness of mental health days is to identify unmet needs and deliberately work to meet those needs. Identify areas of your child’s well-being that may have been neglected in the rush of daily life, and give it the time it needs. Quality time with your child in general is an invaluable way of shoring up their sense of security and giving them much-needed attention.
When should parents seek professional help?
When interventions at school and home seem to have little or no impact, it may be time to seek out professional help. If your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation, never hesitate to get help. Many schools have resources in-house, including school counselors, that can provide immediate support.
How do you find the best provider for your child?
It can take time to find the right provider, but it is worth the search. Your child’s pediatrician may have a referral of mental health clinicians they trust. Your child’s school may also have a list of resources for outside mental health specialists. It is best to find a provider who specializes in working specifically with children, as they will have the training and experience applicable to your child’s situation.
Anything else you would like to add?
Be patient. Struggles with mental health don’t change in a day. Keep in mind that your child is not trying to be difficult, but rather doing the best that they can. Finally, know that children are heavily impacted by their environment. If there are other struggles at home, children will very likely be impacted. Spend some time working for the overall well-being of your family unit, and it will have a positive impact on your children as well.