Kids and Mental Health: Tips for helping kids learn to cope
A Parent’s Perspective:
The hard moments of the last year have put many parents in situations where their kids are struggling with mental health issues–anxiety, depression, and sadness, to name a few. We teach our kids that they can strive to be anything they want and do what they love, but are we doing enough to teach them how to cope when plans change or relationships get sticky? Are they equipped to handle life when it squeezes our joy away sometimes? The last year highlighted all that we were missing, good and bad.
Covid-19 has brought many setbacks and losses, and there has been a ton of sadness and mourning around the world. As adults, we know that life will throw curveballs because we have life experience. Kids don’t have much life experience yet, and their brains are not fully developed. At no fault of their own, kids have a hard time seeing the long term. It is our job as parents to help them see past the struggles of here and now.
The level of stress in our kids is at an all-time high. Not only is there constant stress to do well in school, but school itself can bring a variety of stressors not just related to academics.
Giving my kids space to say, “This is hard, I am struggling, I don’t know what to do,” is crucial. I want to be ready to support my kids when they come forward. Having the courage to speak up when you are struggling should never go unnoticed. Reaching out for therapy is sometimes being met with long wait times for appointments. What can we do to help our kids cope with mental health issues in challenging times?
*Disclaimer: The advice given below is from a licensed therapist as a coping strategy. If you suspect a child or teen of being in danger of harming themselves or others, seek immediate help or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
A Therapist’s Perspective
As a therapist, I have been getting increasingly more texts and calls from friends about this topic. Indeed, kids and teens are exhibiting more overt signs of emotional distress. As I write this, we are a full year into this pandemic where our lives have been significantly altered. As a parent, I know I have been guilty of being frustrated when my son cannot comprehend this as an adult. We have to teach our kids these skills and allow them the space to practice them. Here are three steps I follow in my house. I hope they can help you too.
- Model how adults work through their stress/anxiety every day. For example, when I have had an exceptionally hard day, I’ll say, “Wow, this day was really hard. I’m going to go (insert coping activity here) for a little while to help me relax and calm down.” When I return, I will say how that activity helped me or if I will try something different next time.
- Provide opportunities for your child to talk to you about what they are experiencing. With teens, this may be harder. Saying something like, “I noticed after you got off the phone with Malik you seemed a little upset. Do you want to work it out?” It is important to use a neutral and inviting tone. Use terms like ‘work it out’ vs. ‘talk about it’ works better for us. “Work it out” in our house means anything from talking, doing a nerf war, screaming into pillows, or various other safe and appropriate expressions of emotions.
- Respect your child’s boundaries. If my son says no when I ask him if he wants to work it out, I let it go. I go back to my number 1 of modeling/verbalizing how I cope with my own stress, anxiety, and depression. I provide many more opportunities for him as well to work it out. If your child is more naturally withdrawn, try a “time in’ approach. This could mean requiring your child to participate in a game, cooking dinner, or helping you with a task or errand.
Remember, as parents, we will get it wrong. You may read this and think, Wow, she has it all together…She’s a therapist. Of course, she knows what to do.” But let me tell you, all of this is aspirational. When we are in the moment, emotions run high, and we will likely get it wrong. When that happens, what we can and NEED to do is apologize and say, ” I got that wrong, and I’m sorry. Can we try talking about that again so I can get it right?” It is okay to let our kids see that we are human too.
Written as a collaboration with Emily Raclaw