You want your kids to be healthy and happy, but mental health problems can derail those goals. While you may not be able to protect your kids entirely from anxiety and depression, there are steps you can take to guard your kids’ minds.
First things first, learn to recognize troubling symptoms and seek help when needed.
Also, no matter what’s going on in life, you can set up family practices that encourage healthy thoughts and attitudes.
Disclaimer: the following is for information only and not intended to diagnose or treat any health condition (mental or otherwise). Please talk to a doctor if you have any specific concerns about your child’s mental health.
#1) Educate yourself about kids and mental health.
Mental health issues aren’t just for adults. Children and teens can struggle with their mental wellness, too. In fact, some estimates say that around 20% of kids have mental health disorders. And, as in adults, mental health problems in kids can manifest in different ways.
Everyone experiences stress at different periods in life. On its own, stress isn’t a mental health disorder. But it can impact your mental health and exacerbate other problems, especially if left unchecked over time.
Kids don’t always know how to cope with stress. Small things that might roll off an adult’s back can be overwhelming for some children. And that can cause mood or behavior problems.
Very stressful situations, for instance, may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Car accidents and medical procedures are common triggers. PTSD happens when kids keep reliving those events in their minds. Unlike general stress, PTSD is a mental health condition. It can be diagnosed and addressed with different therapy techniques and/or medication.
All kids worry sometimes, but some struggle more than others. Children who feel extra worried may have anxiety. And it comes in many forms.
Some kids have phobias. That means that they’re overly scared of certain things, like heights or insects, to the point that it can disrupt day-to-day life. Others experience separation anxiety. They get upset when they’re away from loved ones. In social anxiety, kids may worry about spending time in public.
But you don’t have to be anxious about a particular thing to have a mental health disorder. General anxiety disorder (GAD) brings an overall sense of pervasive worry. Kids with GAD might fret about what the future holds. They may also brood about disasters that could strike.
Kids with anxiety can even have panic attacks. Such an attack can bring sweaty palms and a thumping heart. Some people also feel unsteady or dizzy during panic attacks.
When children are unusually sad, depression may be to blame. According to some estimates, depression affects over 3% of kids at any given time.
Major depressive disorder and persistent depressive disorder are two varieties. They’re diagnosed based on how long symptoms last. The intensity of a child’s sadness may factor in, too.
In some kids, depression follows a pattern. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may strike each winter, as it does for some adults. An adjustment disorder, on the other hand, may show up after a major life event.
Point being? Like anxiety, depression can take several different forms, and it’s not always sadness. There’s also not always an obvious cause.
#2) Learn the signs of a struggle.
Kids won’t always tell you that they’re having a hard time. Instead, it’s up to you to watch for signs of a mental health problem.
Your child might display behaviors like:
- Changes in appetite, eating more or less than usual
- Complaining about aches and pains, maybe without an apparent cause
- Lack of energy
- A drop in school performance
- Restless sleep or too much sleep
If your child is withdrawing from friends or social activities that he liked before, or mentioning suicide at all, these are obvious red flags, too. (And in the case of suicide ideation, get help or call 911 if there’s an immediate threat.)
You might also notice frequent mood issues, such as anger, indecision, poor self-esteem, irritability, tears and/or worry, among other signs. As kids get older, they can go through various mood changes thanks to puberty, but persistent mood fluctuations may point to something deeper going on. And in younger children, these signs might be worrying.
Every kid is different, of course, so your child may not fit this list exactly. But if you’re concerned, talk to your pediatrician. She may be able to help you navigate these changes or refer you to a child psychologist for extra help.
#3) Pay attention to risk factors.
Kids of any age can have trouble with their mental health. As a general rule, though, anxiety and depression rates are higher among 12- to 17-year-olds than in preschoolers and preteens.
For some kids, there may be a link between home life and mental health. Divorce and illness, for example, are family situations that may trigger symptoms.
Important: a child having a mental health disorder doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. While home life can impact mental health, some kids may just be wired that way. Mental health disorders sometimes run in families. And anxiety and depression are common in kids with ADHD.
School struggles, friendship problems and alcohol abuse may also be involved. Everyone’s situation is different. And sometimes, there’s no clear trigger.
You can’t do anything about a child’s genetic makeup, but you can mitigate other risk factors, like the school environment she’s in. The point is to recognize risk factors and address them with the help of a professional.
#4) Be proactive about mental wellness.
Whether or not you see signs of a problem right now, you can take steps to protect your kids’ mental wellbeing.
Setting up therapy appointments for your kids may be one of the best things you can do for them, particularly as they get older and life (and emotions) get more complex. It’s definitely a good idea if you spot signs of a possible mental health disorder. But any kid can benefit from having an extra trusted adult in his life. (This advice applies to adults, too. You don’t have to have a mental health disorder to see a therapist.)
Everyone is going to deal with stress at one point or another. Kids who were taught coping skills in therapy may come out ahead.
And in terms of cost, there’s some benefit there, too. Based on some estimates, the money you spend on prevention during your children’s early years could lead to sevenfold savings down the road.
Children thrive with routines. Giving your daily life some structure is especially important during high-stress times.
Predictable routines like set mealtimes and bedtimes can help. So, too, can regularly scheduled fun. Looking for ideas? Make each Friday family game night, or turn Saturday morning pancakes into a household tradition.
These routines don’t have to be elaborate, either. Pop some popcorn, pull up a family movie on your favorite streaming service and make it a regular thing. Having something to look forward to is good for everyone, not just your kiddos.
Kids need to know that other people have gone through tough times and come out okay. Stories have the power to send that message.
Instead of putting on doom-and-gloom news programs, seek out positive current events to share with your kids. For example, look for examples of communities banding together or local organizations doing good work. You may also find accounts of families who accomplished goals or individuals who didn’t let challenges stop them.
It doesn’t have to be fluff. It just has to be real and encouraging.
Art can be a great way for kids to explore emotions. As kids draw happy and sad faces, they might find names for their feelings. And if you work alongside them, you can talk about some of your own emotions.
Sometimes, kids may find it easier to open up about their worries or fears when their hands are engaged in creative activities.
Hackensack Medical Health offers a free list of craft ideas to get you started.
Like adults, children can learn to calm their minds through meditation. During mindfulness activities, they can get in touch with their emotions. They can also learn to regulate their breathing.
And kids who have practiced meditation during relaxing moments may be able to put those skills into practice when stress flares up.
Not sure where to start with a mindfulness routine? Understood and Common Sense Media partnered to compile a list of eight apps to help you and your kids get started with mindfulness and meditation.
Family exercise is great for the body and the mind. When kids play, they feel happy. When they play with their parents, it builds family connections. Strong relationships contribute to kids’ resilience.
According to one survey, only about half of young kids play or take walks outside with their parents each day. Your family can help reverse that trend. Challenge yourselves to half an hour of biking or backyard catch each day.
While you can’t guard against all mental disorders, you can do your best to equip your kids with coping skills as life gets more stressful. When those aren’t enough, reach out to a healthcare professional. Together with a doctor or therapist, you can guide your kids through the highs and lows of life.