Whether your child is struggling with anxiety, depression or another mental health challenge, as the parent, you know they need plenty of support. Mental health issues in kids are not uncommon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites that in the United States, 1 in 6 children between ages 2–8 has a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. Those numbers go up as children get older.
Your child may have an official diagnosis and be in treatment, or they might experience a one-time event that is particularly stressful. Either way, their mental health plays an important role in their overall health and well-being, and support at home is a key part of coping.
In my practice as a school-based therapist in a high school, I help families work through and live with issues including ADHD, anxiety, depression, behavior disorders and more. Below are several strategies families can use at home to help create a supportive environment for kids facing mental health challenges.
ENCOURAGE OPEN COMMUNICATION IN YOUR FAMILY
When kids feel comfortable talking with you about what’s going on in their lives, they’ll be more open to letting you know when there’s a problem. Start early in your kids’ lives letting them know they can come to you with any problems they have.
Encourage family conversations during meals and on car rides, both good times when you’ve got your child’s full attention. Talk about emotions and feelings regularly, so they’re used to having these discussions. Let them know they are loved and supported.
Planting these seeds early on will allow your child to feel safe and secure in their home, and see that you’re a trusted source to turn to when they have a problem later in life.
Anxiety is a normal emotion and physical response in our bodies. Talk with your children about this. Let them know there are certain things in life that cause anxiety, and that everyone experiences anxiety of some form.
Share some examples with your child: Being anxious about giving a presentation at work, a serious conversation you need to have with a friend, or how it felt when you had to take final exams in high school. (We always see an uptick in anxiety around exam time for high schoolers, and that’s normal.)
Let your child know that it’s OK to feel anxious about these things. Then you can talk about strategies for managing that anxiety.
WORK WITH YOUR CHILD ON WHAT IS IN THEIR CONTROL
Help your child understand what they have control over, and what they don’t. This can bring focus to things they can change or work on to improve how they feel or react, or plan next steps to take.
An exercise I often use is to draw a circle on a piece of paper. Inside the circle, have the child write down everything they have control over — their emotions, the way they react to a situation, getting their homework done, things in their bedroom. On outside of that circle, list what may not have control over — things like visitation schedules if parents are divorced, how a friend may respond to them, and so on.
Then help your child talk through what ifs. This can give them ideas for how to respond to certain situations and get them prepared to handle various scenarios.
HAVE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA OFTEN
As your kids get older, especially into the teen years, it becomes harder to monitor their time on screens. They need their phones for their school schedule, they need their computers for homework. When limiting screen time for older kids is less in your control, shift your focus of conversations to the effect that screen time and social media can have on people of all ages.
Social media images typically show only the best of things, which is both unrealistic and unattainable. They can lead users—especially girls—to want to “keep up appearances,” become overly focused on body image, and/or be overly self-critical. Talk to your child about these topics often, and educate your child on how these things can build anxiety. One great way to reduce use of social media apps for both kids and adults is to schedule time limits on your phone.
MODEL HEALTHY BEHAVIORS
As parents, it’s natural to be in the position of telling kids helpful hints: Take deep breaths, give your sister some space, settle down. Unfortunately sometimes we’re not the best at using these tips ourselves.
Think about some of the things you tell your child to help in times of stress: Ask for help, take a moment to calm down, get outdoors to change the scenery for a bit, take a walk to burn off frustration, count backwards from 10. Then, model these behaviors yourself.
For younger kids, it might help to say out loud: “I’m really angry right now, but I’m going to stop and take some deep breaths before I respond” or “I’m going to sit and read for 15 minutes because reading relaxes me.” For older kids, sharing stories can be effective: “Someone at work accused me of making a mistake, and here’s how I handled talking to them about it.”
Other conversation starters include:
- How are we all going to calm ourselves today if we need to?
- What’s mom going to do to take care of herself today?
- When I’m stressed out, these are things I do to help myself.
Your guidance, unconditional love, and support have a significant impact on your children’s mental health and their ability to handle challenges. I hope you find these strategies helpful as you support your children through difficult times. If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health and would like the advice of a professional, a great first step is to talk to your pediatrician.