According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six youth aged 6-17 will experience a mental health disorder each year. That’s 7.7 million children throughout the U.S. And each year the numbers continue to increase.
Just like physical conditions, prevention and early intervention are key in treating many mental health conditions. With this information in mind, one of the best ways to be more vigilant about your child’s mental health is to start having more conversations about it. Depending on your child’s age and your relationship with them, it can be a daunting task.
To start the conversation, the mental health experts at The Village Network recommend the following tips:
Ask your kids questions about their lives every day.
The more specific, the better; and opting for open-ended questions can help avoid the standard one or two-word responses. By asking questions when nothing is wrong, you are opening the lines of communication and can help you identify issues should they arise.
Don’t shrug off seemingly minor problems.
Children are still learning how to navigate things like a dispute with a friend or negative feedback from a teacher/coach. To them, it can feel impossible to cope with these intense emotions, some of which they are experiencing for the first time. While it may be tempting to say, “It will work itself out,” taking them seriously and validating the pain by acknowledging it will go a long way.
Start with conversations about mental health, not mental illness.
Mental health affects us all, no matter our age. If we have a brain, we have mental health. Let them know that just as we have to take care of our physical health, we also need to tend to our emotional well-being. Share some of the ways that you manage stress or difficult emotions. Ask them to brainstorm activities that bring them joy and can be their go-to tactics if they are feeling sad or worried.
For little kids, consider using emojis or books about emotions.
There are a variety of children’s books available at your local library that discuss emotions. Or consider using a chart depicting various emojis. Just opening the conversation about emotions normalizes them and can help prevent children from feeling as if something is wrong with them if they have a feeling.
If you have a mental illness, don’t be afraid to tell them.
Chances are they have observed you taking medication or other tactics to manage your condition. Some parents find it easier to make a comparison to a physical illness. For example, many people get sick with a cold or the flu, but only a few get really sick with something serious like pneumonia. People who have a cold are usually able to do their normal activities. However, if they get pneumonia, they will have to take medicine and may have to go to the hospital. Similarly, feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry, irritability, or sleep problems are common for most people. However, when these feelings get very strong, last for a long period of time, and begin to interfere with school, work, and relationships, it may be a sign of a mental illness that requires treatment.
Confront the scary stuff.
You know your child best. If they are showing signs of depression or anxiety, such as withdrawing from activities they usually enjoy, experiencing changes in eating or sleeping habits, expressing feelings of sadness, guilt or hopelessness; excessive worrying, experiencing frequent physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches or stomach aches), or prolonged episodes or irritability or anger, it’s time to talk about it and possibly enlist some help. Schedule an appointment with your family doctor or seek out the school guidance counselor to see what resources are available. If your child is suicidal, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.
If after a conversation with your child, you are concerned about their mental well-being and need professional support, The Village Network offers outpatient and school-based therapy throughout Ohio and West Virginia. Click here to find a location near you.