There is no denying that 2020 came through like a hurricane wrecking many things in its path. A global pandemic, systemic injustice, political tension, and natural disasters changed our lives in one way or another. From the way we view our world to how we perform our job duties, our lives have been altered. It is not surprising that the country is experiencing a mental health crisis and people are struggling with how to cope with the challenges that 2020 brought.
Adults aren't the only ones experiencing hardships. Children are also finding it difficult to navigate the challenges of modern-day society. Today, children experience peer alienation and bullying through multiple avenues through social media apps. Embarrassing moments aren’t left in just the classroom, they can be recorded and then publically shared and subsequently scrutinized. That, combined with the global stressors mentioned above, creates a breeding ground for increased mental health challenges in youth.
Like adults, children can experience a range of different mental health disorders. The most common types of mental health disorders in children are:
- Behavioral problems (Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Substance Use Disorders)
Diagnosed mental health disorders in children have increased over time. There was a 3% increase in anxiety and depression disorders in children from 2003 to 2011, from 5.4% to 8.4%. Today, 7.1 % of children between 3 and 17 years of age have been diagnosed with anxiety and 3.2% of children between 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with depression. Unlike adults, children may not have the ability to identify and express what they are experiencing. As an adult, there are signs you can look out for to help you recognize a mental health problem in your child or teen.
Significant changes in behavior, mood, and communication are all potential signs of a mental health disorder in a child. Indicators of mental illness in children can look different in each child. As a parent, you know your children best and some of the warning signs to look out for are listed below.
1. Changes in academic and behavioral performance at school including:
- A decline in grades
- Reports of bullying other students or being bullied themselves
- Difficulty sitting still or waiting their turn in line
- Chronic late or missing work
- Failure to listen to the teacher
2. Changes in their activities of daily living including:
- Sleep changes (going to bed too late, over-sleeping, under-sleeping)
- Significant increase or decrease in appetite
- Weight loss or gain
- Neglecting personal hygiene (showering, brushing teeth, wearing clean clothes)
3. Changes in mood, affect, and emotional expression including:
- Intense or frequent mood swings
- Intense emotions such as anger and fear
- Extreme reactions or overreactions to minor occurrences
- Low motivation and decreased energy
4. Changes in behavior including:
- Attempts to hurt themselves
- Talk about hurting themselves or taking their life
- Reckless, dangerous, and impulsive behavior
- Substance use
- Obsessive over their weight
5. Changes in relationships including:
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Avoiding social activities and engagements
- Irritability and hostility towards loved ones
While many of these warning signs may be considered a "normal" part of development and self-actualization, it is important to keep an open line of communication with your child. Let them know that you have noticed a change (even a minor change) in one of the above-mentioned areas. Allow them the opportunity to speak with you about it without judgment, punishment, or inference. Talking about mental health with your child doesn’t have to be scary or uncomfortable.
Ways to Speak to Your Child About Mental Illness
As previously mentioned, if you notice a change in your child and suspect they are struggling with their mental health, talk to them about it. The key here is to not assume, jump to conclusions, or judge them. Instead, listen with the intention of understanding their perspective and validating their truth (even if you don't agree with it or understand it fully). Validation is a key component not only in effective communication but effective emotional regulation as well. A simple "that makes sense" and "it's okay to feel that way" goes a long way.
After you validate your child's experience it is okay to keep the conversation going by normalizing the existence of mental health. If you have any experiences you can share to help your child feel less alone, share away! If you know of a famous celebrity they admire that also struggles with a mental health disorder, let them know about it. Furthermore, answer any questions they may have and if you don't have an answer for them, tell them you don't know. It is okay.
Finally, let your child know that there are different ways they can get help. Talking to a mental health professional, support groups, and medication are some of the possibilities. Encourage your child to express their emotions and thoughts in healthy ways such as journaling, painting, and other creative endeavors. Remember to accept and validate their feelings no matter what they may be.
Jacquelyn Buffo is a licensed professional counselor with experience and expertise in substance abuse and mental health issues. She received her MS in mental health counseling from Capella University and is a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the state of Michigan. She is also in the process of receiving her certification in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Jacquelyn has experience working with clients suffering from addiction and mental health issues on an in-home, residential, and outpatient basis. Currently, she works with adolescents and adults with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder through Henry Ford Health System.