May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and the Connecticut Psychological Association and the American Psychological Association offer tips to help parents and caregivers recognize the signs of mental illness and emotional distress in their children. Approximately one in five children experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.
When kids experience difficulties, it’s important that they feel comfortable going to their parents or other adults for help. Some children may keep their feelings inside. If something is troubling them, they may not speak up and ask for help. Sometimes, kids don’t realize that help is available. As the first line of support, parents must be able to have open conversations about feelings so they can identify when their children are struggling emotionally.
According to SAMHSA, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in Connecticut, about 28,000 adolescents aged 12–17 (9.7% of all adolescents) per year in 2013– 2014 had at least one Major Depressive Episode within the year prior to being surveyed. The percentage did not change significantly from 2010–2011 to 2013–2014.
Getting kids to open up and talk can be a challenge, but the following tips can help start a conversation.
Talk about feelings from an early age. Parents and caregivers should use language that is appropriate for the age and development of their child. Help them learn to name their emotions. Let children know that people can experience all kinds of emotions and it is ok- it’s what they do with the emotions that matters.
Make them feel safe. Put kids at ease so they feel comfortable opening up. It is essential to make it clear why the conversation is happening, as kids can be fearful that they may be in trouble or are being punished if they are pulled aside to talk. Parents and caregivers might consider creating a time to talk one-on-one on a regular basis, such as a weekly lunch or after school snack. Talking while driving in the car together often works well.
Listen to them. Take the time to actively listen to what children have to say. Many times, all kids want is someone who will listen. Try to understand their perspective before offering suggestions. It’s not necessary to try to fix everything. In many cases the best help is to listen attentively.
Be Genuine. Try to avoid speaking from a script. Kids can tell when you’re not being genuine. Be open, authentic and relaxed to help them do the same.
Affirm and support their need for help. It’s ok for children to express sadness or anger. Normalize those feelings by telling them you’re proud of them for sharing their feelings. Let them know how courageous it was for them to trust an adult for help. If it seems like they need more help than you can provide, consult with an appropriate professional. It might be best to start by talking to the school psychologist.
Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know. As a caregiver, it is ok to admit that you don’t have all the answers. However, if a child asks a question, make every effort to find an answer or someone who can help.
I want to add something here. If you are concerned about your child’s level of sadness, don’t be afraid to ask if they have had any thoughts of hurting themselves or killing themselves. If they have been thinking about these things it may be a big relief for them to express these thoughts. If these are not concerns for them, you will not be giving them bad ideas. Certainly, if self-harm is a concern, please consult with a psychologist or other mental health professional trained to work with kids.
To learn more about emotional health and well-being, visit the American Psychological Association at www.apa.org/helpcenter and follow @APAHelpCenter.
The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes more than 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.