Little Kids, Big Feelings

Little Kids, Big Feelings

Tips to help care for your child’s mental health

Words by Ashley Locke

Mental health is still a relatively new concept for many people. Adults around the country have been learning how to check in on their own mental health—but what about the mental health of children?

“It's important for parents and caregivers to check in with kids, because there's a lot happening in the world, and it impacts children as much as adults,” said Cindy Jones, Director of the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) at Children’s of Alabama. “If all of a sudden there's a pandemic, or a war, or bullying at school, or social peer pressure—these things can change the life of a child. What may not have been an issue last year may be an issue this year, and being aware of those changes is the best thing a caregiver can do.”

In March of 2018, PIRC created a program to help parents learn how to care for children who are struggling with mental health issues. “We developed a phone call center where any adult can contact us to identify the most appropriate mental health resources in their community,” said Jones. “For example, if a child sees a pediatrician and expresses depression, parents could call us and we could match them with the right resources in their community. Many people jump to thinking they should see a psychiatrist, but in some cases therapy may be the best option.” 

The center helps guide parents to the best course of action so their children can get the best care. But for those who live outside of the state, PIRC provided a few tips for checking in on your child’s mental health. 

Signs that your children are struggling with their mental health:

  • Changes in mood or behavior - anger, sadness, frustration, or disinterest lasting two or more weeks.
  • Difficulty concentrating - lack of focus, decline in academic performance, poor memory retention, lack of sleep, or misplaced items.
  • Weight loss or weight gain - loss of appetite, dieting, over-exercising, using laxatives, overeating, or vomiting. 
  • Detachment - isolation, spending a lot of time alone, little to no interest in being around other people. 
  • Attachment - becoming clingy around parents or caregivers.
  • Physical indicators - complaints of frequent headaches or stomachaches.
  • Physical harm - self-harming behaviors, inflicting harm on other people or animals.
  • Substance abuse - using substances to “cope.” 

How to talk with your children about their mental health:

  • Take the position of listening - Give them an opportunity to say what they need to say. Be OK with silence—kids may need time to identify what they want to talk about. Validate your child’s feelings about challenges being faced.
  • Keep the door open - Don’t nag—check their emotional temperature and let them know you’re listening and supportive. If they aren’t ready to talk, let them know they can follow up at a later time.
  • Be patient and give some grace - There are no quick fixes. Often their issues developed over time, so solutions will also take time. 
  • Offer help that makes sense to the children - Parents should help them learn that talking to someone about their mental health is a positive thing.
  • Educate kids about what mental health can do - Let them know you will go through this with them. It helps them build confidence. 

Questions to ask your child:

  • Is anything worrying you?
  • How does your body feel? Are you having headaches or stomachaches?
  • Are you falling asleep ok?
  • Have you been having a hard time paying attention lately?
  • Do you feel like you have too much on your plate?
  • What do you like to do to relax?
  • Have you felt supported by your friends lately? Your family?
  • Do you feel positively or negatively about life right now?
  • Is there something you need right now that you don't have?
  • Do you think your feelings are being taken seriously?

How to help maintain your child’s mental health:

  • Set and maintain a routine for children to follow at school and home. Routines decrease everyone’s anxiety because what’s next is known.
  • Teach and encourage children to make friends and connect safely with other students and teachers. This is important for their emotional and social development.
  • Help your children maintain a positive sense of self. Try to avoid criticism and practice more acceptance. Everyone needs a break right now—including you.
  • Allow for self-discovery. There is always something that may be learned from both positive and negative experiences. Look for the silver lining.
  • Help your children understand that change and uncertainty are a part of life. It builds resilience.