Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I have done a lot of research for this blog and talked to some experts to allow me to share this information because I believe it is important. This blog is not meant to diagnose nor provide treatment in lieu of you seeking professional help in cases you, as the parent or primary caregiver, feel necessary to ensure the health of your child.
Let’s talk about mental health and our children. The times demand we focus on our internal health as much as we are focusing on our external health during this pandemic. Having the courage to focus on our mental health shows strength especially in the face of uncertain times. This past summer I became a member of the board of directors of a great organization called Mental Health America, Fredericksburg, Virginia (MHAFV). For the next two blogs, I want to speak to the parents of middle and elementary school children about mental health concerns our homebound learners may face, how we can recognize when something is not right, and the language we can use to talk about mental health in a way that will help our children take care of themselves from a whole-person perspective.
Don’t be put off or scared by what I’m about to share but according to the CDC, “7.1 percent of children aged three to 17 (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety, while 3.2 percent of children aged three to 17 (approximately 1.9 million) have been diagnosed depression. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that one in five teenagers between 13 and 18 will experience at least one ‘severe mental disorder’ during their life, as will roughly 13 percent of kids aged between five and 15 years.” As parents, we have to be aware of the symptoms of this particular disease like we are of any other. We must arm ourselves with the knowledge and understanding of what we can do early in our children’s lives to keep them safe.
With the current pandemic and resulting climate, there are things we might see happening with our children that can be concerning. I’ve listed some of the signs of depression in the chart here.
Experts consider a prolonged expression of the symptoms listed—more than two weeks—to be cause for further investigation and action by parents and/or caregivers. Don’t be afraid to have routine conversations with your children about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing as they process their new normal.
But how do you start these conversations? I asked Jordan Alpert, Suicide Prevention Education Coordinator for MVAFVA and mom of three children 10, 8, and 4. Alpert suggests starting with the simple question she asked her children recently.
“How much do you love yourself on a scale of 1-10.”
After letting her children ponder the question and giving their answers, Alpert repeats what her children tell her:
“So you are at a 9. Why are you at a 9?”
The answers that follow are what you’d expect from children at this stage: “Sometimes I mess up.” “I don’t understand math all the time.” “I don’t like the way I ________.”
The answers your child gives are important and can lead to further discussions about things like working to do your best and not worrying about perfection, about grit and resilience, and about self-love and being kind to yourself. You can work to emphasize effort and determination by reducing the focus on letter or number grades, especially if you know your child is putting forward their best personal work.
After the discussion phase, which can take place over a number of conversations, Alpert suggests you propose the next question:
“How do we get you to a 10?” It’s a great time to talk about goals and drilling down into those things you can do to support your child’s improved sense of self. Talking about success in terms of self-awareness and self-growth is a big win from a mental health perspective. This takes some control from parents as well. We, as parents, are often driven by “good grades” and external praise. Accepting your child’s best effort can fall short of what our hopes are for our children’s classroom defined success. We have to temper our own expectations in order to coach our children through the extraordinary challenges they are facing.
As to where to have these discussions, it isn’t surprising that young children have a harder time talking about things when they feel the pressure of a face-to-face discussion. The kitchen table at dinner time with the rest of the family present may not be the best time to raise this particular topic. I’ve heard time and again from parents that some of their best interactions with their kids take place during drives to and from practice or school. Given the current social environment maybe that “drive” is to a park followed by a lap around the track. Boys especially respond better to conversations when they are engaged in something like building with LEGOs or even a video game. It’s important to meet our children where they are comfortable. You know where that is.
If your child’s concerns revolve around their school experience, Alpert says not to be afraid to enlist the assistance of your child’s teacher. They are there to help and often have strategies that can support your son or daughter with issues your children may be struggling in their virtual environments. Teachers will often set up special tutoring times, similar to in-school periods, so they can give your child one on one support. And remember the school counselors. They are tremendous resources and want to help your child navigate these new educational waters.
Also, Alpert suggests, as I have in past blogs, that you encourage your child to write down their feelings. Perhaps that is using a virtual journal or a good old fashion paper journal. One great idea is to have a “Mommy and Me” or “Daddy and Me” or “Auntie and Me” journal where you each make entries in response to a prompt or prior entry. You don’t have to talk about the entries face-to-face but you can address your child’s concerns using healthy dialogue and communication by writing things down and leaving the journal in a neutral space. Creating a response journal and using it as a daily check-in is a great alternative when you’re interacting with a child who isn’t comfortable with one on one conversations.
Next blog I’ll share about the importance of your actions and self-care and give you more strategies for addressing your child’s mental health balance in these difficult times.
Until then please stay safe and keep lifting one another.