As children in the Fredericksburg region return to in-person school, area mental health counselors who work with children encourage parents to remember that for children to succeed academically, they must first have a healthy baseline of good mental wellness.
“They have experienced tremendous stress,” said Lisa Dolan, coordinator of social work services for the Spotsylvania County Public Schools. “One of the things we know supports children in dealing with stress is buffering adult relationships.”
These positive adult relationships were harder for children to create during the pandemic, when schools, churches and many sports clubs paused in-person operations. But they are an important protective factor that can help children build resilience.
The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on the mental health of America’s children. A study released in July by the CDC found that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls aged 12 to 17 years were 51% higher from Feb. 21-March 20,
2021, than they were during the same period in 2019. The increase was 3.7% for boys in this age group.
A study released in June by Ohio State University that surveyed 11- to 16-year-old males found that nearly one-third reported increased anxiety levels and worsening moods between March and June of 2020.
While many parents are eager for children to return to making academic progress, rebuilding resilience and addressing mental health issues will be prerequisites to succeeding in schoolwork.
Dolan recommends parents check out the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a neuroscientist who focuses on helping kids through trauma.
Perry lays out three steps that are crucial to getting kids’ brains ready to learn. They are:
Regulate – Children must calm their fight-or-flight responses first. They need to be reassured that they are in a safe and protective environment.
Relate – Once children have regulated, they need to connect and build a relationship with the people around them, including teachers, bus drivers, counselors and peers.
Reason – Children can reflect, articulate and learn from their experiences—and proceed to academic work—only after they have achieved the first two steps.
Dolan said parents can help by encouraging children to talk through their anxieties at home, and reassuring them about the safety of schools. A good first step, she said, is for adults to make sure they are taking care of their own mental health.
“Kids do well when adults do well. First and foremost, parents have to take care of their own emotional needs,” Dolan said.
She urged parents to remember that schools have resources for helping children deal with anxiety, and talking to a school counselor can be a good first step if something seems off.
“There are people out there who will help them, and they are as close as your school.” Dolan said.
Sachiko Jordan and Sherrie Johnson are both child and adolescent therapists with the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board. Both have seen an increase in referrals during the pandemic, with heightened levels of teen and adolescent depression, social anxiety and isolation.
As schools prepared to return in August, Jordan said she worked with many adolescents on social anxiety. Parents may want to keep in mind that for children who were completely isolated for much of the past 18 months, “They kind of forgot how to connect with others.”
Talking through basic social skills such as how to start a conversation, how to make friends and how to greet people can help with this.
With concerns about the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus increasing, both Jordan and Johnson said it’s important for parents to be intentional about the information they share with their kids. Focus on addressing the specific concerns your children bring up, and don’t allow doom-scrolling or constant news reports to dominate the mood of your home.
“I would be cautious in not providing too much information,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I think it’s best to wait until somebody asks the question. You can provide so much information that it can be very anxiety-provoking for children.”
Teens and adolescents can be a tough group to talk to, but they’re also apt to tell others that their parents “never listen.” Sending a consistent message that you are available to listen to your children’s concerns in a way that is approachable for them can help you stay in tune with their mental health.
Jordan said she regularly does exercises with teens asking them to name the things they hide from others.
“Their No. 1 answer is, ‘My true feelings,’” she said.
She acknowledges that it can be hard for parents to get teens to open up about their feelings—but it’s still important to send a consistent message that you are there to listen and support them. It is also helpful to model how you are coping with your own feelings.
“Sometimes teenagers have great insight, and it’s good for parents to share their own emotions and vulnerability, and to say, ‘I have those feelings, too,’” she said. “You can say, ‘I am worried about this, but this is how I am coping.’”
Jordan also said parents should remember that children express themselves in many ways that are not verbal.
“It’s very important to be curious about your kids. What kind of music are they listening to, what kinds of shows are they watching?” she said. “Sometimes they express themselves through different forms than words. Behavior itself is a message.”
Johnson urged parents to give grace and take things one step at a time as children return to pre-pandemic routines.
“It was an adjustment going out of school, and it’s going to be an adjustment going back in,” she said. “Take it slow. Take a breath. You can do this.”
To learn more about area mental health resources, visit rappahannockareacsb.org.
Stay tuned to the Fredericksburg Parent and Family Facebook page and YouTube channel for a video interview with mental health professional at RACSB during the month of September.
Warning Signs of Teen Suicidality
Every Parent Should Know the Warning Signs of Suicidality:
- Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
- Looking for ways to kill oneself, such as searching online, stashing medications, or buying a firearm
- Talking about feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Visit www.lockandtalk.org for additional resources and information.
What You Can Do If Your Teen is Emotionally Overwhelmed
If you or someone you care about feels overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression or anxiety, or like you want to harm yourself or others, call RACSB Emergency Services Therapists at 540-373-6876. They’re available 24/7. You can also call 911 and ask for a CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) trained officer.
You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (Press 1 for service members, veterans, and their families) or text “Hello” to 741741 to talk to a Crisis Text Line counselor. The Trevor Project Hotline provides support to the LGBTQ community at 1-866-488-7386 or text them at 678678. Por favor, ayudame este numero 1-888-628-9454.
RACSB offers both adult and youth Mental Health First Aid courses as well as ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) to interested community members seeking to help those experiencing a mental health-related crisis. Visit www.rappahannockareacsb.org to learn more.