Should You be Concerned About Your Child’s Mental Health?
By Ariella Soffer, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
Coping with difficult emotions, such as sadness, anger, or fear, is developmentally more difficult for children than for adults. Until children have learned how to deal with their troubling feelings, it is important for parents to assist children in dealing with these experiences.” Anglicare South Queensland, 2021
Children and adolescents experience and display distress and mental health concerns in different ways than adults. Most adults have a more expansive ability to express themselves through words in stressful or difficult times and situations.Yet, the same general rules of thumb exist when identifying and addressing signs of emotional stress in kids as with adults; do these problems present interference with daily life (i.e.functionally impairing)? Are they increasing in severity and/or frequency?
Pressure to try drugs and alcohol (or other peer pressures)
So what do you do if you notice that one or some of these stressors are impeding your child/teenager’s life?
Talk With Your Child
Depending on your relationship with a child in your home, you are often the person who has the most contact with them and may be someone who sees them daily. You are likely one of the first people to notice signs of distress in a child. Try and talk with your child about any changes or stressors in his or her life. Try and separate your own anxiety or reaction to situations in your life from what your child might be facing.
Talking with your children about their fears and concerns will enable them to make sense of their experiences. Talking with your child is different from talking to your child. Be sure to listen and respond rather than just teaching and telling. Sometimes, all a child needs is to feel heard and have their emotions validated; to have someone look into their eyes, and say, with empathy, “I understand.” This can be far more valuable than any “quick fix” you might suggest. Never underestimate the value of spending one-on-one time with your child. If you have a child who isn’t a talker, just spending time together can be a way to help them open up in their own time.
The most important thing to convey to your child is that they are safe and can talk to you. More importantly, when you encourage your child to engage, be sure they know you are listening. Put your phone away, keep your anxiety in check, make sure your child knows he/she won’t be punished or admonished for discussing their stressors, feelings and struggles. Try to be as patient as possible. Often it takes several conversations before a child is prepared to open up. You may think that you aren’t getting through to your child, but after a day or two they return prepared to share. Some people take more time than others to open up.
Manage Your Own Stress
Children model the adults they look up to. Research shows that when parents are stressed, their parenting style becomes less supportive (Deater-Deckhard, 2008). It’s important to take care of yourself in order to take care of the children in your life. Things to be intune to and aware of are: job dissatisfaction, relational dissatisfaction, home stressors, financial challenges, your own health or taking care of someone else’s health, and Covid-19 related stressors. Be sure to engage in behaviors that you find to be relaxing and de-stressing in order to mitigate any of these strenuous situations and the impact they have on your emotional health. I am going to reiterate this point again: Manage your own feelings. If trusted adults are anxious, it indicates that there is something to worry about. This means you have to check in with yourself first, and make sure you have your own outlet.
Be a Role Model
Children observe their parents’ body language (posture, facial expressions and one of voice and choice of language) and listen to conversations in the home. How you cope with stress is being noticed by your children. It is helpful for children if parents can discuss issues with each other in calm ways and agree to take a break if tension rises between them.
When your child comes to you upset, angry, sad or afraid, it is vital that you stay calm and regulate your own emotions. Staying calm when your child is upset can demonstrate to your child that they can always come to you with their problems, without fear of your reaction. No matter how upset they are, you are a source of stability. In very distressing situations, work on not allowing your emotions to take control.
Ensure Home Is a Safe Place
Do what you can to ensure that the home is a safe haven – comfortable and predictable. Establish and maintain a daily and weekly routine, as children of all ages need stability. If your lifestyle is busy, having a weekly family night is important to continue to build and maintain connections between family members. Make sure the child has a place to be alone if they feel like they need space.
Be Aware of Your Child’s Moods and Allow for Expression of Feelings
You know your child better than anybody else. Watch for signs that they are experiencing stress, fear or anxiety. This is particularly important if the family as a whole is under stress, if your child has experienced a traumatic event, or any of the other potential stressors exist as previously mentioned. Be sure to watch for any physical and emotional/behavioral changes (listed above).
When children experience difficult feelings such as sadness, anger, anxiety and stress, they will express them in different ways. A good way to support your child at these times is to listen and help them to identify their feelings. Provide reassurance through hugs and let them know it is okay and normal to be sad and to express feelings however feels appropriate.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you are ever unsure or questioning, there is never a downside to getting a “check-up,” the same way you would for your child’s physical health. Despite recent advancements in our society there remains a stigma associated with mental health, especially amongst our children and teens, in a way that doesn’t exist for physical health. The rule of thumb is if the signs and symptoms aren’t going away, they are getting more intense, more frequent, or they are impeding your child’s life more significantly, it’s time to speak with a professional.
Seek professional help if your child is:
Withdrawn and less interested in socializing
Less interested in activities that they previously enjoyed
Changes in sleeping or eating habits
Falling grades at school
More irritable than usual
The best place to start is your pediatrician, school guidance counselor, or therapists in the area to determine how to help your child.
If you or someone you know needs help or someone to talk to, please call one of the following numbers:
Contact PerformCare, NJ Children’s System of Care at 1-877-652-7624 for access to a one stop shop for mental/behavioral health services as well as for youth who struggle with substance use concerns, developmental disabilities and juvenile justice involvement.
Ariella Soffer, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who owns a group practice in Manhattan. Dr. Soffer’s practice specializes in parenting consultation, sports psychology, perinatal mental health in addition to general mental health concerns. Soffer & Associates Comprehensive Psychological Services website can be found here: DrAriellaSoffer.com