Dealing with mental health problems can be a long and trying process for most people, more so when it’s a child in question. Parents have to be able to account for their child’s mental health and wellbeing just as they would take care of their physical health. If a child breaks their ankle, you should take them to the doctor. Similarly, if they display aggravated signs of mental distress, it is important to get them help immediately. However, there are a number of ways in which you can help your child if they show signs of mental health problems.
How can you identify when your child is in distress?
There are a few markers that are noticeable when a child’s mental health is deteriorating. These include changes in:
- sleep, appetite & mood
- concentration & attention levels
- thought patterns & topics of conversation
- interest & engagement in regular/daily activities,
- Social interaction and self-care
- attendance or academic performance
Please keep in mind as you go through this process that most kids go through a lot of changes during their adolescence and youth, which can have an impact on how they express and control their feelings and thoughts. Thus, it can be common to observe marked behavioral differences between developmental stages. It’s critical to recognize the differences between growing pains and the early indicators of mental health issues.
Know the early warning signs of mental health problems!
Some of the early warning signs to keep an eye out for are:
- Inability to be soothed or calmed down
- Lack of regular sleep & awake cycles
- Serious issues with feeding – both with eating too much and eating too little.
- Body dysmorphic issues
- Thoughts that alienate them from reality
- Self-harm/suicidal ideations
- Misbehavior with other children or adults
- Emotional Stunting
- Inability to communicate problems
All children experience some of these problems at different times. But you should worry when your child’s problems get in the way of his or her daily life. In these times, support from parents, caregivers, and families is extremely critical, like at child care, sports practice, or other children’s activities. Hitting or biting others, lashing out, and throwing tantrums are common behaviors for toddlers who cannot verbalize their needs and feelings. Some young kids may always seem bored or uninterested in what’s going on around them, and they may withdraw into themselves. Some children may not process feelings and emotions well, or they may distance themselves from normal relationships. Instead of blaming or abandoning them, we must provide these children with positive ways and outlets to redirect their feelings and actions, and support and understanding when they need it, even if it feels counterintuitive.
How do you support your child’s mental health needs?
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, first consult your child’s primary health care provider. Describe the behaviors that concern you, show them the notes you have taken, and make an appointment for your child to talk to them if it’s needed. You should also talk to your child’s teachers, friends, relatives, or other caregivers (if possible) to see if they have noticed any startling changes in your child’s behavior and demeanor. Make sure you share all this information with your primary health care provider, and that you talk to your child about it – without making them feel like there is something wrong with them.
However, a lot of the work needed to provide support to children falls to the parent or primary caregiver. Each child is different, yet there are a few solutions that can help you deal with most of the less serious mental health problems your child could face. Here are a few ways in which you can support your child’s mental health needs:
- Provide them with ample love and affection. If your child likes hugs, give them hugs. If they don’t give them high fives or fist bumps. Create your own way of showing love based on what they like. Read them a story when they go to bed. Give them encouragement through the day; regardless of what they have done/how well they have done it. Be their cheerleader, be their rock, and be someone they can count on when times are tough.
- Teach your child how to empathize and work with others. It is important to teach your child to work with others, so that they can learn valuable socializing skills early on. By teaching them about empathy and the importance of teamwork, you can help your child learn to help the people around them, which will only boost their self worth.
- Engage with activities that they love. Take time out of your day, however busy you may be, to interact with your child regarding things that they like to do. Listen to them talk about their favorite TV shows, help them with activities that they like, learn from them and educate yourself about their interests. You can make them feel like their life is just as important as yours is.
- Show them that everyone makes mistakes, and that it is human to do so. It’s okay to point out mistakes that your child makes, as long as you aren’t aggressive about it. Instead tell them about your own experiences and how they can rectify the mistake, in a friendly manner. Don’t be afraid to humanize yourself, because it shows them that everyone is human and that mistakes are a part of life.
- Encourage joyful and healthy physical activities. Teach your child positive ways to express themselves by using their bodies. Enroll them in sports or creative activities, so that they have an outlet for their negative emotions. Let them play outside, dance to music, swim, jump and more, as long as they are being safe.
- Help them set reasonable & achievable goals. Children need to be introduced to the idea of setting achievable goals. Instead of focusing on long-term goals, help them focus on short-term goals that they can complete without a lot of trouble. By setting reasonable goals, you can show them how to handle stress, and negotiate tough situations.
- Reinforce their self-worth & self-view with positivity. Allow your child to make decisions by themselves, so that they get used to being able to trust themselves. Whenever they feel down, or you notice a drop in their self-esteem, remind them of all the times they were able to transcend a problem. Show them that the world is better with them in it, and that your life is richer because they are around.
- Help them put things into perspective and maintain a positive outlook on life. When your child is going through something especially painful or traumatic, sit with them and talk it through with them when they are ready. Contextualize the situation, empathize with them, and work together to gain a long-term perspective. Help them see that they have a future ahead, no matter how hard things may be in the present.
- Create opportunities for self-discovery. Children shouldn’t be coddled or ‘handled’, instead tough situations can be used to teach them valuable life skills. Show them that they can make choices by themselves, but if they really need help, you are there for them.
- Teach them to accept and embrace change.
Change can be extremely scary and unsettling, regardless of your age. Allow your child to see and interact with changes around them, so that they can see that they are part of life. Help them set new goals, if old ones become unattainable, and encourage them to learn how to examine what is going well in their lives. This in turn can help them plan for what is not going well.