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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

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Parents are Key to Children’s Mental Health

RACSB offers practical tips for supporting and helping your child

In October, three major children’s health organizations declared children’s mental health a national emergency. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association said the disruptions wrought by the pandemic had worsened what were already troubling trends for the mental health of America’s youth.

“Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020 and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24,” the coalition wrote. “The pandemic has intensified this crisis: across the country we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts.”

These trends bear out locally, as both outpatient and crisis services providers who serve children and families through the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board (RACSB) report seeing an increase in referrals of children experiencing heightened anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

“We’ve definitely caught up to what we anticipated to be this backlog of kids from the pandemic, and it is happening at a really high rate now where we are seeing a lot of kids in crisis,” said Kari Norris, Emergency Services Coordinator with RACSB.

Norris and her colleague Katie Barnes, Spotsylvania County Clinic Coordinator, say parents play a key role in helping children with mental health struggles reach positive outcomes. Whether your child is thriving, or in the midst of a mental health crisis, it is never too late to take a more proactive approach toward your family’s emotional health. Here are some strategies to keep in mind.

Normalize talking about emotions

Establishing an open channel for your child to name and discuss their emotions sets a strong foundation for mental health. Make sure emotions aren’t something to hide in your household, and model healthy ways of expressing them.

You can do this with simple dinner conversations, like naming the high and low points of your days around the table. Norris says even the simple practice or regularly observing your child’s behaviors and reactions sets a strong baseline for spotting issues that may arise.

“Therapy 101 is saying what you see. If you see your child is more withheld and staying in their room, observe it,” she said. “You’re not assigning a feeling or blame; you are just making an observation. That makes people feel validated because they feel seen. If you are experiencing any kind of mental-health distress, feeling validation is pretty high up on the needs pyramid.”

While it’s natural for parents to want to jump immediately into problem-solving mode, Barnes and Norris stress the importance of being able to sit with the big feelings your children express.

“We come in as parents and try to fix it. Sometimes it can come off as minimizing those feelings,” Barnes said. “A lot of times kids just need to be seen and heard and validated.”

Find help early

The child advocacy organization Voices For Virginia’s Children estimates that 1 in 5 children in the commonwealth do not receive the mental-health help they need.

RACSB offers an array of mental health services for children and adolescents and can be a first point of contact for parents who are concerned about their children’s mental health. Reaching out for help early can be key to helping your child avoid a crisis. One place to start is RACSB’s emergency services number, 540-373-6876.

Warning signs include changes in mood, drops in grades, increased isolation or a loss of interest in a child’s favorite activities. Still, as a parent, it can often be hard to gauge when some of these changes are more than just part of growing up.

Norris said pediatricians, school counselors and other adults who see kids day in and day out can often alert parents that certain trends could be the sign of a problem. When it’s time to seek the help of a mental health counselor, Barnes said one place to start is by calling your insurance provider to get a list of providers in network. Professionals who treat children for mental health disorders include licensed professional counselors, licensed clinical social workers, and psychologists.

“I always encourage parents that you want to find the best fit for your family,” Barnes said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Norris encourages families to try more than one session with a counselor before deciding it’s not a good fit. First sessions are often about fact-finding and may not be a good indicator of how the relationship will evolve. Parents should also remind kids to feel safe that anything they discuss in a therapy session is confidential.

Virginia and the nation are experiencing a shortage of mental health providers, so Barnes and Norris say it’s important not to give up if efforts to find a counselor aren’t immediately successful.

“It’s so important to not give up,” said Norris. “Kids are going to internalize it. If the parent says, ‘I called a lot of places, they aren’t taking anyone—are you feeling better today?’ That kind of puts the pressure on the kid to be better.”

Explore available resources

RACSB offers a variety of services to support mental health for individuals of all ages in the Fredericksburg region. Visit rappahannockareacsb.org to learn more.

RACSB also offers a course called Mental Health First Aid, an 8-hour curriculum designed to help adults recognize mental health challenges and safely respond to an individual in crisis. Check RACSB Facebook Events page for class availability.

Mental Health America of Fredericksburg also has a list of area mental health providers, and can be another good starting point for parents seeking help for themselves or their children. Visit mhafred.org/helpline/ or call their HelpLine at 540-371-2704.

Reading aloud with your children is another opportunity to strengthen mental health supports within your household. Below are some suggested titles.

  • Diane Alber’s “Little Spot” series
  • “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers
  • “The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig
  • “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont
  • “Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too)” by Keith Negley
  • “The Mindful Dragon” by Steve Herman
  • “In My Heart” by Jo Witek
  • “Listening to my Body” by Gabi Garcia
  • “The Boy with Big Big Feelings” by Britney Winn Lee

For additional resources: rappahannockareacsb.org/portfolio-view/resilience/

RACSB Emergency Services Therapists are available 24/7: 540-373-6876. To schedule an appointment, please call the clinic in the locality where you live:

  • Fredericksburg Clinic 540-373-3223
  • Caroline County Clinic 804-633-9997
  • King George County Clinic 540-775-9879
  • Spotsylvania County Clinic 540-582-3980
  • Stafford County Clinic 540-659-2725

In a crisis, call 9-1-1 and ask for a CIT Trained Officer.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Crisis Text Line: 741-741

Emily Freehling
Emily Freehling is an award-winning journalist who helps Fredericksburg Parent and Family's advertisers tell valuable stories through magazine advertorials and videos. Emily also produces content for a wide variety of other clients and outlets. Find her on LinkedIn and at emilyfreehling.com.

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