This post is sponsored by Rogers Behavioral Health, a not-for-profit, independent provider of specialized mental health and addiction services for adults, teens, and children. Offering treatment in seven states, Rogers is one of the largest specialty behavioral healthcare systems in the U.S.
How Parents Can Navigate Mental Health with Their Child
Over the last few years, pop culture and Hollywood have tackled mental health, causing the necessity of having difficult conversations among teens and parents. One of the most intense of them all, 13 Reasons Why, caused schools to facilitate open conversations by holding seminars and town hall meetings for parents to discuss the epidemic of teen depression and suicide. It’s not only adolescents who are affected in this media storm. Many adults follow shows like A Million Little Things, where a group of friends are rocked to the core when their friend dies by apparent suicide in the show’s pilot episode. To them, it was completely out of the blue, and they spend the following days trying to piece together why and how they got to this place.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all become more aware and all a little more vigilant with emotional and mental health. But by far, one of the scariest moments a parent can experience is one where they realize that their child is struggling emotionally and they find themselves in the midst of trying to determine the best next steps.
Basics of Emotional Development and How it Relates to Mental Health
Before we jump to the how-to, it’s important to understand that there are key milestones of emotional development. As we grow and change physically, we are also experiencing feelings and emotions that influence the way we think and act. In order to facilitate and have a clear understanding of how a child’s brain is developing these emotions, I highly recommend reading The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, written by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. It’s a quick and easy read but provides a wealth of knowledge and gives parents specific ways to help guide your child through emotional development. If reading is impossible, don’t worry… there’s an audiobook available too! I also recommend bookmarking Dr. Siegel’s website because there are many great (FREE) resources including printables, short videos, exercises to do, and information on his other books.
Parents are the best observers of their children, so know what to look for to determine if your child is struggling emotionally. You can also check in with babysitters or nannies, teachers, parents of friends, and coaches.
Here are signs and symptoms that suggest emotional difficulties:
- withdrawal and isolation from family and friends
- being irritable or sad for most of the day every day
- not enjoying things that he or she used to enjoy
- a significant change in eating or weight, either going up or down
- sleeping too little at night or too much during the day
- a lack of energy or inability to do simple tasks
- low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or guilt
- drop in grades or having difficulty focusing and completing tasks
- not caring about the future
- frequent thoughts or statements about death or suicide
If you feel that your child is exhibiting some or most of the symptoms mentioned above, there are some important steps to follow.
- Talk to your child. Talking about this is very hard but it’s an important first step to take. Sit down in a quiet place and share what you’re seeing. “I’ve noticed that you seem sad a lot recently. What’s going on?” Remember to be gentle in your approach and do your best to ask questions that allow for open answers. You want to stay away from communicating that they are bad or in trouble.
- Check-in with your child’s doctor. It’s important to let your doctor know what symptoms you are seeing and how the conversation with your child went. There could be an underlying medical condition or these symptoms could be a side-effect to medications but it’s still important, so give your doctor a call. Oftentimes, doctors will recommend a scheduling a visit where they can gather information and administer a depression or anxiety screening.
- Schedule a session with a therapist. If psychotherapy is suggested by your child’s doctor, it is important to schedule an appointment as soon as possible. If your child isn’t referred to a therapist, it is absolutely okay to schedule with a therapist anyway. Remember how we talked about emotional development? Yeah… therapists can help with that! If you are seeing mood changes, chances are there is something deeper going on. The therapist will also assist you and your child in creating a safety plan in case symptoms worsen. This plan provides clear signs to look for and steps to take.
- Follow the treatment recommendations. Things might appear to feel better because you’ve taken the previous steps but chances are, things aren’t really better. There are many tools that a therapist can provide to help you and your child cope with emotional difficulties, so ongoing therapy is essential. Children are able to explore things that are contributing to or causing the emotional difficulties. It isn’t just about the symptoms, without addressing the hurt and pain underneath the feelings and emotions, symptoms will continue to worsen.
Navigating Mental Health with Your Child in Times of Crisis
Recently, I came across a post in one of the Facebook groups I follow. A mom was asking for next steps after finding out that her teen daughter was experiencing suicidal ideation (thoughts and feelings of wanting to die) and self-harming. It is sometimes difficult to determine the severity of these types of statements and, oftentimes, parents aren’t sure what to do. We don’t want to overreact but we don’t want to ignore it. It’s scary and often heartbreaking to the parent and it is hard to know where to turn or who to call.
Milwaukee is fortunate to have many mental health resources. Rogers Behavioral Health covers a myriad of helpful topics on their blog and podcast. In the case of an emergency where a child reports suicidal ideation, you can take them to the Emergency Room to be evaluated. Rogers Behavioral Health provides free mental health screenings and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In addition to outpatient services, they also provide inpatient and residential care for OCD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addictions. If a parent interrupts an attempt or a child doing preparatory behaviors, call 911. You can also contact your county’s mobile crisis team (Milwaukee-MUTT, Ozaukee-COPE Services, Waukesha) and they will send crisis workers immediately for evaluation and crisis management.
This topic is scary to think about and it’s so much easier to think that it could never happen to you and your family. But, it is a situation that many parents face with their children. If your child is struggling, you are not alone. There are resources in place that can help you and your child work through the pain.
Don’t wait. Have the conversation and take the steps.
Kristen Holmes, MA, LPC-IT is an intensive in-home psychotherapist working with children age 6-18 and adults with depression, anxiety, ADHD, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, and Reactive Attachment Disorder.