Mental Health in Children: How You Can Help

One of the greatest joys, as well as the hardest parts, of my job, is working with children. What I love about working with children is that although circumstances can be overwhelming, even tragic, children possess an innate ability to grow, as well as a resiliency we often do not see in adults.

Whether the issue stems from ADHD, depression, anxiety, or as a result of trauma, children have so much capacity to course correct and head towards a healthier future. I am frequently amazed how well adjusted I have seen some kids become after facing such horrors of trauma which are beyond what is needed to describe here. Knowing that I can have a hand in helping kids grow in mental health is something that keeps me going.

Often, people, be they parents or others with children in their lives, will ask me struggles children face today Further, many inquire as to why it appears that so many children today suffer from mental health issues. The latter question has a multitude of answers, but fortunately, I do believe there is a matter of perception at play.

In the past, it was less acceptable to talk about mental health. If you were anxious, depressed, or had experienced a traumatic event and struggled to move past it, you might be called weak. If you suffered from what we know is ADHD, you were just a wild child.

As a society, and although we yet still have a long way to grow, we have become much more knowledgeable about mental heath and as a result more compassionate. Mental health issues are no longer as belittled or relegated to the shadows, so as a result we hear about so much more than in years past. However, pressures now exist that are so much worse than in years past. This ties to the former question above.

A famous theory of personality and human development revolves around a man named Maslow. Maslow postulated that we have a hierarchy of needs positioned like a pyramid, with basic biological needs at the bottom and rising towards social emotional needs and self-actualization at the top.

The premise is we as humans direct our energy and stress levels towards the lowest point we have not met. If we don’t have food and water, we focus on that. Then shelter. Then love and belonging, then self-esteem, then self-actualization.

Now maybe in the past, we struggled as a society to be more secure in those lower need levels (although there are many, many individuals struggling still to find housing and food on regular basis), so we are focusing more on the social and esteem needs as a whole.

With the advent of things like social media and just a much more connected world, more things threaten our self esteem and our security in belonging. For children, this is what I believe is much harder today. How these systems attack our children’s sense of selves greatly impacts their mental health.

Before we go further, let’s dissect what I mean when I say mental health. I have an “official” title of Mental Health Professional. However, I am also a Marriage and Family Therapist. Were I to take a job in a hospital, they would call me a Behavioral Health Specialist.

So what, then, do I work with? The mind, families, or behaviors? Well, yes. All three. I tend to work in what we call a biopsychosocial (spiritual) context. This means that our bodies, behaviors, thoughts, spirituality, and social/familial lives all intertwine, tug, and pull on each other.

How healthy we are physically can affect how we feel, and that affects how we act, and that affects how we are in relationship. But these all can affect each other in multiple directions. When I talk about mental health, it encompasses all of these realms. While we have specific disorders such as Major Depressive Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, our mental health affects so much of us.

Additionally, I like to think about what is healthy or not. So while you may have some issues but they do not rise to the level of a disorder, you still have room to improve in your mental health. And in reality, we all have room to improve in our mental health. So mental health is something we strive for, and just like certain foods are unhealthy for our bodies, so are certain thoughts, relationships, and practices for our minds.

What Can Affect Mental Health in Children?

A while back, there was a rather landmark study in the field of childhood health and psychology, called the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, study. The ACE questionnaire was a rather short, simple survey that inquires if prior to the age of 18 you encountered any number of “bad” things, such as childhood abuse, neglect, or highly stressful circumstances in your environment. ACEstoohigh.com describes the correlation between a higher ACE score and negative outcomes:

“The study’s researchers came up with an ACE score to explain a person’s risk for chronic disease. Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood toxic stress. You get one point for each type of trauma. The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health and social problems. (Of course, other types of trauma exist that could contribute to an ACE score, so it is conceivable that people could have ACE scores higher than 10; however, the ACE Study measured only 10 types.)

As your ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social and emotional problems. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; attempted suicide, 1,220 percent.”

Note, the ACE score controls for all sorts of different factors, so the implication is that stress has a highly negative effect on both physical and mental health for children, all the way into adulthood. A way I describe the effect of stress on individuals is that we all have a cup, and this cup has a limited volume into which we pour all our stress.

Imagine adding a drop for a stubbed toe, a tablespoon for hearing politics on the radio, and maybe half a cup for dealing with an unexpected illness in a loved one. Everyone’s capacity for stress is different, but some people are dealing with some base level stressors that are higher than others.

Living with a verbally abusive parent, for example, would lead a child to have less capacity to deal with stress in other areas of their life. If the mental health of a child is being impacted negatively at home, they will likely struggle in other environments, such as school and with friendships, as well.

Taking this metaphor and applying it to what we spoke about before in the hierarchy of needs since we only have so much capacity our energy goes towards what is needed first. We cannot even begin to stress about self esteem if we don’t have food on the table, that becomes our primary drive and focus.

However, once those things are met we then do stress about our self esteem and social relationships. Children today deal with a higher level of stress in social relationships as there is no ability to go home and not have to think about their place in the social hierarchy, as social media reminds this of them minute by minute.

Before, you could escape bullying and social pressures in the safety of home, now those things can follow you home and live in your pocket. This adds some stress to the cup and creates the potential for greater problems down the road. Even though children might have it easier in terms of not having food and shelter concerns, the experienced stress level is not necessarily any lower and in some ways can be even higher.

How Can I Help My Child?

Given the fact that children do experience tremendous, and often different, stress today, you may be wondering how you can hep your children. Assuming that their needs for food and shelter are already met, make sure their social and emotional needs are met as well. This begins with the simple phrase “unconditional positive regard.”

As a parent it is your duty to provide for your child, also you must begin with unconditional positive regard for them. This means that you love them no matter what and think high of them no matter what, even when they mess up and/or annoy you. Most will proclaim this as their truth, but I often see there are ways in which parents struggle to actually demonstrate this.

I do not wish to rag on parents, as this is difficult to do – especially if you were not shown it as a child yourself! We are all human and children will inevitably raise our stress levels, causing us to fall short of the “perfect parent.”

However, please strive to work on the relationship with your children first, and so much of helping them to navigate their mental health with fall into place. At times, this may mean helping them, and bringing yourself, to be okay with a B- (or even a C?) instead of an A.

Help release some of the pressures they are feeling and work with them on managing their own stress and anxiety. In the end, making the ivy league school is not worth it if life feels miserable. Remember, there are many paths to joy and happiness.

Another thing to help your child is to ask them how they are doing and listen to them. What is helpful is to investigate with the purpose to understand. Don’t grill them and tell them how you had it harder, or even the same.

Understand that the factors impacting stress and mental health are so varied that it truly is a different world, so just work on understanding where they are. You can help your child’s mental health so much simply by listening and validating their experience, letting them know they aren’t crazy for feeling the way they do.

However, at times things can become clinical and truly beyond what you feel you can handle. This is where we professionals step in. Getting your child to see a therapist can be so helpful for their future in managing clinical depression or anxiety. Just as we go to the doctor for the improvement of our physical health, so should we go to a therapist when we feel our mental health is in decline.

Normalizing this for your child now will help them to feel safe to do so as an adult. I do recognize that often there exists a stigma, though, about seeing a therapist. My hope is that you will be able to lean in and try and fight through that.

Maybe none of your friends’ children are seeing a therapist, so it feels like you’re the “bad parent” for needing to take them in. Not at all! You can, instead, be the good parent that begins to change the norm and the narrative. I am positive that either many of your friends’ children are seeing therapists, or they would greatly benefit from doing so.

Mental health affects us all, and in children, it can be debilitating. However, children also possess such resiliency that a little course correction at a young age can go such a long way. Please do not hesitate to address the mental health needs of your children.

There are things you can do now that will pay dividends years down the road. Sometimes it means improving your relationship, sometimes it means listening without judging, and sometimes it means seeing a therapist. I encourage you, then, to take the time and energy to invest in your child’s future. It will help their mental health, as well as your own.

Photos:
“Hiding”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Homework”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Cup of Water”, Courtesy of Meir Roth, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Out for a Walk”, Courtesy of Josh Willink, Pexels.com, CC0 License