by Rachel Lacks, PhD
In the wake and midst of the global pandemic, social interactions have been limited, stress levels have been high, and mental health concerns have been on the rise. It is imperative to be aware of and supporting the mental health of children and adolescents at this time.
Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit organization, conducted a screening on 1.5 million people over the past year, and found that mental health issues have been more of a challenge for youth than any other age bracket. From January to September 2020, young people ages 11-17 were more likely than any other age group to report moderate or severe symptoms of anxiety and depression.
May is Mental Health Awareness month, during which many organizations raise awareness for various mental health struggles, and illuminate the challenges that millions of people face each day to remind us that we are not alone. While mental health is spoken about by the media and general culture more than ever, we need to make sure this messaging is specifically transmitted to children and teens. Below are some suggestions for parents, caregivers, teachers, and others who work with youth, to promote mental health awareness and care.
Normalize talking about mental health. Mental health struggles are so common that there is nothing “abnormal” about them. Check in with your children and see how they are feeling on a regular basis. One fun and easy way to do this is to ask for a “rose and thorn” of the day. A rose is a positive highlight, and a thorn is a challenge or something they wish had gone differently. This gives children the opportunity to reflect and think about their negative as well as positive feelings. It also gives parents an opportunity to problem solve for anything that is going wrong and to give positive reinforcement for successes.
Validate feelings. It is ok for your child to feel anger, anxiety, sadness, frustration, jealousy and a host of other difficult emotions, since it is human to experience a full range of emotions. Telling a child that they should not feel angry at their brother sets an unrealistic expectation. We all get angry at times. Instead, we can say that it is ok to be angry, but it is not ok to hit. This teaches children that their emotions are valid, even though there are limits around acceptable ways to express how they feel.
Provide appropriate coping skills. Teach your kids some things they can do to regulate their emotions effectively, and model these skills yourself. Taking a few deep breaths, taking a break, going for a walk, engaging in physical exercise, and listening to music, are all simple and effective ways to cope with challenging and intense feelings. Another great coping strategy is simply to describe our feelings by labeling them (e.g., “I feel sad right now,” “I’m feeling a bit angry,” “I’m having a terrible day.”) In fact, this latter strategy helps us to normalize, validate, and also cope with our feelings. Along these lines, help children to effectively articulate their emotions, instead of simply responding to them.