As parents, we know how to protect our kids from getting sick (most of the time): wash their hands, eat nutritious food, and get good rest.
But what can we do to protect our kids’ mental health, so they can tolerate stress and strain, enjoy life, and form healthy relationships?
Physical health and mental health come together to make a healthy child. A healthy child has the best chance of growing into a healthy adult.
Here’s how to give them the best start possible.
What kind of mental health challenges do our children face?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies many mental health disorders that can affect young people. Today, we’ll focus on two:
- Behavioral disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder, and other behavioral patterns that can include substance use, defiance, criminal activity, impulsivity, etc., that cause significant problems for six months or more.
- Mood disorders like different forms of depressive mood disorders and anxiety disorders.
- 9.4% of children ages 2-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD (6.1 million)
- 7.4% of children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with behavioral disorders (4.7 million)
- 7.1% of children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety (4.4 million)
- 3.2% of children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with depression (1.7 million)
Like with adult diagnoses, children diagnosed with one mental health disorder are often dealing with at least one other. For example, ADHD often goes hand-in-hand with behavioral issues, and depression and anxiety regularly go together.
The good news is these issues are common, and there are proven, reliable treatment options that can help your child thrive in their day-to-day life.
Protecting Your Child’s Mental Health for Their Future. What Can Parents Do?
Mark White, the executive clinical director of Embark Behavioral Health’s Dragonfly Transitions program, shares five strategies you can use to give your kids the sturdy platform they need to face the stressors and challenges that are a part of their lives. And they’re not complicated; some of the things you do to support your teen’s mental health go a long way toward supporting their physical health, too.
1. Set healthy patterns in your family’s daily life
“Structure and predictability are essential for all of us,” White shares. “But especially for young people managing their mental health, they need to have things they can count on like structured activities.”
These might sound basic, but they are essential foundations for your child’s mental well-being. They could be:
- Sharing nutritious meals
- Prioritizing healthy sleep habits
- Setting reasonable rules and routines
- Turning off screens before bed
“Summer months are here… It makes sense to have a set schedule. Here at Dragonfly, we talk about having a balance of activities – time in/time out. We balance time to engage and time to down-regulate, based on Dr. Dan Siegel’s research on The Healthy Mind Platter.”
White continues: “Tending to a sleep schedule is important, including having good boundaries and expectations around technology use, so they know ‘It’s 11 o’clock, phones are off, and we’re sleeping.'”
2. Take a Youth Mental Health First Aid Course
Mark White is also a Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor and recommends parents take a Youth Mental Health First Aid Course. “It teaches the basic skills of how to be supportive,” White explains.
Youth Mental Health First Aid is offered all over the U.S. It is an 8-hour course that teaches participants to recognize the warning signs of mental health issues in adolescents, the importance of seeking help early on, and how to help a young person experiencing a mental health challenge. It gives parents and others who work with teens the tools they need to assess an initial problem and find the right resources to help your teen.
Youth Mental Health First Aid USA is an 8-hour public education program that introduces participants to the unique risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems in adolescents, builds understanding of the importance of early intervention, and teaches individuals how to help an adolescent in crisis or to experience a mental health challenge. Mental Health First Aid uses role-playing and simulations to demonstrate how to assess a mental health crisis, select interventions and provide initial help, and connect young people to professional, peer, social, and self-help care.
Teens are a challenge. They’re mentally and emotionally different than children, yet they’re not quite adults, either. Youth Mental Health First Aid courses will help you prepare for new challenges and new ways of relating to each other.
3. Ramp up your teen’s social life
“Part of who we are as human beings is based on our relational capacities – the social interactions we have […] As cool and as useful and practical as Zoom and RingCentral have been (for the pandemic), the more in-person interactions people can have, the better.”
This starts with family. Be intentional about the time you spend with your teen. Make together time a priority, and then branch out.
Many factors make our teens resilient, but one essential factor is how many caring adults they have in their lives. Parents make up one or two, but relatives, an influential teacher, or a helpful neighbor can give them an even stronger support safety net. As society opens up, it’s critical to restore these elements to your teen’s life.
But also, know there might be some resistance at first. That transition from a home-based and sedentary lifestyle to a more interactive one is an adjustment, primarily if your teen deals with social anxiety, depression, or substance use issues.
4. Watch for shifts from your teen’s baseline
“I intentionally don’t use the word ‘normal.’ ‘Normal’ is a setting on the washer,” White adds. “You know your kid […] Look for the changes from baseline that are not just a one-off, but things like spending more time by themselves, talking less, disengaging from everyday activities that your child’s historically been interested in.
“Some of that is developmental and appropriate. Our interests change as we change. But it’s a green light for the parent to be curious and say, ‘Hey, I’m noticing you’re not playing soccer anymore. Talk to me about that.'” (For more ideas on how to talk with, and listen to, your kids, check out our handy guide.)
5. If they need it, get help
There are times when we get stuck and need help. If it seems like your child is struggling with their emotions, relationships, or daily functioning, and things aren’t getting better, get help sooner rather than later.
“According to NAMI, Americans would historically wait 11 years from the onset of symptoms to the time we got definitive care,” White says. “I like to believe that has shifted a lot in the last decade or so. Getting care sooner means outcomes are going to be better. If your gut is saying ‘make a counselor appointment,’ go ahead and do it.”