5 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Mental Health
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most recent statistics indicate that for children ages 3-17; 7.4% have a behavior problem diagnosed, 7.1% have anxiety, and 3.2% have depression.
See more in-depth statistics here
It is not uncommon for these diagnoses to co-occur and impact children throughout their entire childhood.
As a Registered Psychotherapist, I meet with youth, mostly ages 10 – 18, on a weekly basis. From my experience, I imagine the statistics above are only on the rise.
In some cases, mental health is out of our control, but in other ways, there is a lot we can do to improve mental health or prevent mental health crises.
As parents, we must allow our children to express their emotions. We need to help them learn to process their feelings and provide external support (in the form of a counselor) when necessary.
If you have not developed an open, emotionally safe environment for your child up to this point, that is ok. Moving in this direction is essential and may be difficult or awkward for you and your child at first.
So, do not be discouraged if you experience some resistance from your child at first.
To help improve your child's mental health and implement an environment in which your child feels safe to express their feelings, consider these five points.
1. Acknowledge Your Child's Feelings
Understandably, you may not agree with everything your child feels, especially when they express their feelings by complaining.
However, if you don't acknowledge your child's feelings as real, it can create a lot more inner turmoil for them and cause them to shut down.
If your children doesn’t feel like they can tell you their feelings, it is likely they will hold their feelings in. By doing so, there is a higher chance they will struggle with feelings of anxiety and/or depression.
From my nursing background, I remember learning that pain is what a patient says it is. Someone may complain of level 10 pain, and I may perceive their pain to be less than that due to their body language or other factors.
But what I perceive doesn't matter because we all perceive pain differently, and it is important to acknowledge what a patient says they are feeling.
It is the same with your child and their feelings, whether it be physical or emotional pain. If they feel sad, frustrated, left-out, annoyed, angry, etc., let them feel those things and acknowledge those feelings as real.
For example, let's say your child comes to you and says they are nervous to start school after the summer. If you respond by saying, "you'll be fine, you do great every year," you are not acknowledging their feeling of nervousness.
You can still encourage and remind your child that every other year has gone well, but first acknowledge what they are feeling, and let them know it is ok to feel that way.
So instead, you could say "I'm sorry you are feeling nervous, what makes you feel most nervous about going back to school? It's ok to feel nervous before starting something new."
After your child explains, you can say something similar to the first response to encourage and remind them that they will be ok and have done well in the past.
Your child needs to feel safe to express their emotions and needs to feel like their parent's care. As parents, we can always acknowledge our child's feelings no matter how rationale we think they are. After acknowledging their feelings, we can then speak truth over them and provide reassurance as necessary.
2. Help Your Child Process Their Feelings
Acknowledging and processing feelings are two different things. In the first example, I explained the importance of acknowledging your child whenever they express a feeling.
The next step is helping your child process those feelings. One of the best ways to help them process is to ask questions and provide insight.
If your child can name what they are feeling, it helps you skip a step in the processing. Like the above example, a child expresses that they are feeling nervous, so you know what they are feeling. You can then expand on that by asking why they feel nervous, what makes them the most nervous, etc.
To provide insight you can bring up patterns you have noticed. Sticking with the example, you may notice that your child is always nervous to go back to school after summer, or that your child always feels nervous in times of transition. Providing this insight can help your child process and also grow in self-awareness.
If your child can't name what they are feeling, you need to help them name it as part of the processing step.
For example, your child comes home from a friend's house, and you can tell something is bothering them. You ask them how their time was, and all they say is fine.
To continue, you could say, "it seems like something is bothering you, or you seem to be upset, did anything happen while you were with your friend?"
Hopefully, this will begin to open dialogue for your child to express what happened or what is bothering them. Questions like: How did you feel when they said or did that? What made you feel (….)? Why did that make you feel (….)? All are great questions to help your child further acknowledge and process what they are feeling.
Don't be discouraged if your child has a hard time answering these questions or gets frustrated at first.
If your child is not used to acknowledging their feelings and processing them, it will take them time to get comfortable doing so.
It is also ok for your child to express that they don't know why they are feeling a certain way. Your child may simply wake up in a bad mood, and upon asking what's going on or why they seem to be upset, they may not know why.
In that instance, it is good to tell them that it is ok to feel frustrated or upset sometimes and not know why. That is also normal.
3. Monitor What Your Child Watches on TV/YouTube
In my experience counseling, I have been surprised by how much time my clients spend alone in their rooms watching tv series or YouTube channels. This seems to be the norm, and I really do not believe that it helps a child's state of mental health by any means.
I often ask my clients what shows they like to watch. If I am not familiar with the show, I will watch an episode or two to gain insight into what my clients are spending time watching.
And let me tell you, after watching some of these shows, I am shocked. It is no surprise to me that depression and anxiety are on the rise for youth in our nation. The media they often consume is all but wholesome and uplifting.
If you don't already monitor and limit what your child watches start doing it! Watch what they watch and put restrictions on certain shows as necessary!
We try only to let our daughter watch tv with us as a family to prevent it from becoming something that is isolating. We don't always do this, but we never let her watch things alone in her room.
Not because we don't trust her, but because we want her to feel like she is still near us even if we aren't watching with her. Small things like this can go a long way for mental health.
Even with that said, just being in the room with your child while they watch tv won't prevent feelings of isolation. It is not the same as sitting next to someone on the couch who is engaged in the same thing you are.
So whenever possible I would still recommend watching tv with your child, and definitely avoid allowing them to watch alone in their room.
4. Monitor/Limit Your Child’s Social Media Use
Social media is brutal. Especially as kids get into middle school and high school. Social media creates a disillusioned reality and sets standards that will likely never be met.
It also keeps kids from learning to communicate verbally because they can just send texts or snap chats or whatever else they do! I don't think all social media is terrible, but it certainly needs to be monitored and limited to keep your child from getting consumed by it!
The less they use it, the less likely they are to be impacted by the unnecessary drama that can come from it!
And the less likely your child is to get sucked into comparisons and unrealistic standards.
5. Consider Therapy for Your Child
I know I'm a counselor so I may be a bit biased, but therapy can be so beneficial for your child. My husband and I have a counselor, as does our daughter, and we plan to maintain those therapeutic relationships no matter how good or bad life is.
It is so helpful to have someone completely removed from your life who can listen and help you process things.
Children go through phases of not wanting to share things with their parents so if they can have someone else, like a counselor, that they trust and can open up to it can make a substantial difference for their mental health.
The sooner you find a counselor for your child, the better, so they can begin building that relationship. Your child doesn't have to go once a week or even once a month.
Many of my clients start out coming weekly so we can build rapport, but then many of them transition to as needed and will go months, sometimes years, between sessions.
These five steps are not likely to be easy at first, especially if your child is not used to it. Start slowly by implementing these techniques into daily interactions with your child. In instances that are less emotionally charged for your child, they will probably be more comfortable opening up and processing with you, compared to situations that cause really strong emotions. It is definitely a process, so baby steps are ok!
Disclaimer: This is not meant to be taken as professional advice based on my experience as a Registered Psychotherapist. My career does impact my perspective and how I parent, but my services are not to be provided outside of my practice. If you have any questions or concerns about your child's mental health, please contact your pediatrician or another mental health professional in your area.