By Corrie Kindyl, PhD, LMHC, LMFT, NCC, ACS
From economic instability to at-home isolation, the COVID-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on America’s collective mental health. But for children and young adults, a steady rise in mental illnesses like anxiety and depression has been in the works for much longer.
In a trend so marked that The New York Times dubbed it the “Inner Pandemic,” incidences of depressive episodes in adolescents rose 60 percent from 2007 to 2019. Similar sharp increases were observed for mood disorders, self-harm and even visits to the emergency room caused by mental illness. Right now, it’s estimated that more than 1 in 5 children under 15 has a mental health disorder that impacts their ability to function.
Talking about mental health in children can be frightening. If you’re a caregiver for a child living with trauma, you may know that helping them heal is just as challenging. But that’s exactly why this past month – as National Mental Health Awareness Month and Trauma Awareness Month – is the perfect time to start those difficult conversations.
It’s no exaggeration to say that supporting emotional and mental health at a young age is just as essential as making sure kids get regular check-ups at the doctor and dentist. In a landmark study in 1997, researchers from Kaiser and the CDC found that the more “adverse childhood experiences” (ACES) a child experienced, the higher their risk of illness and injury later in life.
But there’s good news, too. Over the last few years, new research has also found that children exposed to positive childhood experiences – such as caring teachers, predictable and safe home environments, positive friendships and opportunities to have fun – can counteract the effect of ACEs on adult health.
Whether you’re a parent, relative, teacher or caregiver, you can help create that positive environment for the young people in your life by adopting a few simple habits:
- Change the Way You Listen. When kids are feeling big emotions, they don’t always have the words to express how they feel. Instead, you may see the symptoms before the cause: outbursts of bad behavior, poor focus in class, nightmares, changes in appetite or even self-isolation. Try to “listen” to what these nonverbal actions are really trying to express.
What’s the real trigger, or root cause, of their emotions? Are they dealing with conflict at home or at school? Adjusting to a new environment? Coping with the loss of a loved one? Or healing from previous abuse or trauma? Even something as “normal” as puberty and teenage hormones can be emotionally stressful.
Of course, there should be consequences for bad behavior – but that isn’t the same thing as punishing a child for feeling bad. Remember that you are your child’s model for patience, empathy and honesty – so make sure you practice those traits when you talk to them. Most of all, listen to your child’s voice and let them be part of the solution.
- Teach (and Practice) Emotional Awareness. A child who feels “bad” may not know if they’re angry, scared, sad, tense, frustrated or disappointed. They may also not know how to distinguish between feelings (like sadness or fear); sensations (like fatigue or hunger); thoughts (like “I’m not good enough” or “I always mess up”); and actions (like shouting, hitting or crying).
That’s why it’s the job of adults to help teach them the words and skills they need to share, understand, and manage their emotions. Practice on-the-spot calming techniques, like counting to ten or taking deep breaths; or encourage activities (like art, sports, gardening or journaling) that build empathy and emotional control. As with any good behavior, try to “catch them doing good” and give them lots of praise when they do.
- Cultivate Happiness. It’s natural to focus on the struggles associated with mental health but recognizing good and positive emotions is just as important. By learning to cultivate happiness, kids can create an emotional anchor that makes them more resilient to short-term setbacks and helps them find their own sense of purpose and joy throughout life.
Helping any loved one manage mental health issues can be a heavy responsibility, but it’s not one you need to carry alone. Talking to your child’s pediatrician about their mental health, and asking for a referral to a trained therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist if needed, is more than “okay” – it’s the right thing to do.
At Embrace Families, we’re working to build stronger families and safer homes in Central Florida and ensuring that all children have the support and validation they need to grow, heal, and achieve. To find out how you can be a part of that mission, visit www.EmbraceFamilies.org.
Corrie Kindyl, PhD is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, CEO of Community Counseling Center of Central Florida, and a member of the board of directors for Embrace Families Community Based Care.