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Although the world has been opening back up for the past few months, repercussions from the pandemic are still visible across many different aspects of life—and kids’ mental health is no exception.
An October 2020 survey found that 31 percent of parents reported that their child’s mental or emotional state was worse than before the pandemic. Similarly, another study showed that over 50 percent of adolescents reported that the pandemic had created problems surrounding their emotional wellbeing.
“We were already seeing skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression prior to the pandemic, and this has put gasoline on it,” says Dr. Jody Ullom, pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health Town and Country Pediatrics.
But identifying exactly what the problem is and finding solutions can be a difficult task. Mental health can be a sensitive subject for parents to address and should be approached differently according to the individual. However, there are some things they can do to start this conversation with their kids—no matter if they’re toddlers, children, or teenagers. Here are some of them:
Regardless of the age group you have at home, it’s crucial that your kid knows you’re there to listen to what they have to say. Create a safe, accepting environment where they feel comfortable voicing their concerns and struggles. Make sure to ask questions and avoid as many interruptions as possible.
While it may be easier to have these conversations with young children than teenagers, remember that patience is key. Teenagers may be more reluctant to share due to fear of being judged or criticized—there might be more layers to what they’re feeling than what you may think.
“I think it’s really important to have dialogues with your kids—that can be a very high bar with a teenager. I think checking in with them and just saying ‘I noticed that you seem to be spending even more time in your room than you did. Are you touching base with your friends?’” says Dr. Ullom.
Welcoming their questions
In order to maintain an honest, transparent conversation, it’s important that your kids know their questions and concerns won’t be dismissed. Encourage them to ask questions—and do your best to answer as honestly as possible. If they ask something you don’t know the answer to, look for it together by consulting mental health experts or their pediatrician.
Keep in mind that young children don’t need as much information or details. When explaining concepts or answering their questions, focus on concrete objects to enhance their understanding. Teenagers on the other hand, may be less responsive or willing to ask questions. Because of this, it’s important that the conversation you’re having is two-sided and doesn’t feel like a lecture.
As part of establishing a two-way conversation, you may also talk to your kids about your own mental health. “I really think it’s important that we model self-care. If we’re not doing things to promote our own emotional wellbeing, we’re not gonna be able to be there for them,” says Dr. Ullom. Consider having an honest conversation and let them know if you struggle with your own mental health, how you practice self-care or even if you see a therapist—knowing that their struggles are more common than they think may help them open up and be more comfortable talking about them.
Being reassuring and staying away from judgement
Many teenagers constantly worry about what others may think of them, and their parents are no exception. It’s normal for teens to have a series of insecurities, so you need to be understanding of them and do your best staying away from any judgement or prejudice—voicing them won’t help your kid, especially when they’re in a vulnerable position.
Additionally, it’s important parents recognize their kids’ efforts and praise them whenever they succeed—even if they may be small victories that others wouldn’t consider significant. This builds confidence in the kid and shows just how proud you are of what they’re overcoming.
Offering solutions, or offering to help them find one
If your kid is struggling with something, it’s important to help them find a solution. If your kid is young, this may be easier but with teenagers, they may be more prone to doubting your advice or choices you make regarding their mental health. Because of this, it’s important to remember that the teenager must agree to get help—it’s a key step for them to start taking responsibility when dealing with their own mental health.
“They have to be willing participants in this, and some kids are not there. You can’t beat yourself up as a parent if you have a kid who’s just not receptive to getting help. What you need to do is keep checking in with them, make sure you have a safe environment and, hopefully at some point, they will be ready to access care,” says Dr. Ullom.
Seeking professional help
Regardless of their age, a kid may not feel comfortable enough to talk to their parents about certain aspects of their mental health. Or maybe they have voiced these issues, and you don’t know how to help them. Whatever the situation may be, there are professionals trained to tailor each one of your kid’s struggles.
Seeking professional help sometimes isn’t just a possibility but a necessity. “Talking to your pediatrician is a very good start. We’re very accessible, you can come to us for a physical—it’s a good excuse to come in. And then, utilizing school counselors is terrific, utilizing outside therapists is great,” says Dr. Ullom.
Stanford Children’s Hospital’s professionals are ready to help you and your kids manage their mental health. Click here to learn more.