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How to Help a Child Face Their Mental Health Problems

A simple guide to help adults empower children to heal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes mental health concerns in minors as serious and noticeable changes in functioning that cause distress. According to the Child Mind Institute, more than 17 million of our nation’s youth may be facing a mental health problem. It is estimated that a majority of these children do not receive the help they need. The lack of appropriate care may not only exacerbate symptoms but could also affect a student’s health, functioning, academic achievement, family relations, peer connections, and overall wellness. Unchecked mental health concerns have the potential to foster dangerous reckless, criminal, and suicidal behaviors. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about half of mental health concerns develop by age 14, therefore, detecting concerns early in life is not only possible, but critical. In order to tackle these alarming statistics adults must be keen to mental health symptoms and capable to address potential problems.

Here are five steps to help you help your child:

1. Know the signs

Children are susceptible to a wide variety of mental health concerns including, but not limited to, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder eating disorders, and mood disorders. Although symptoms vary per diagnosis and may differ from child to child, general symptoms of mental health problems include:

  • Changes in mood, feelings, or behavior
  • Lack of concentration
  • Social withdrawal
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Physical symptoms (e.g., headache, upset stomach)
  • Harm to self or others
  • Substance use and abuse

2. Expand your knowledge

Learning the potential signs of a problem is the first step to expanding your knowledge. Paying attention to the signs as you delve further comes next. The signs above are general. Symptoms vary per concern. You don’t need to diagnose your child, but it is helpful to explore the specific symptoms that may be relevant to your child’s struggle. Stopping at the symptoms above may cause you to miss crucial cues. Expanding your knowledge can help you see signs such as hiding food or thinning hair that may be related to an eating disorder, or repetitive behaviors and sleep dysfunction that may be attributed to an autism spectrum disorder.

As you do your research, be sure to pay attention to your sources. Quality information can be found on reputable mental health organizations websites. Some helpful resources include:

The National Institute of Mental Heath

Psychology Today

National Institute on Mental Health

Mental Health America

The Child Mind Institute

3. Have a chat

After reviewing the symptoms, if you notice that several align with your child it’s time for a talk. Take a moment, step back, and remind yourself of why you are having this conversation. Odds are your intention is to help your child heal. It is important to convey your love and support. Try to be open to what your child has to say and refrain from dismissing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Timing is important to consider. You may be approaching this conversation due to a reaction to a crisis. Be mindful that may be difficult to reflect and think clearly at that time. Additionally, it may be a sensitive topic and you may feel awkward, scared, or confused. That is normal. You can ease your way into this talk with a text or E-mail if needed. The information that you would have previously gathered in your research can come in handy, and may help you feel confident in your approach. Depending on the age of your child, completing a screening or collaborating on a discussion of the symptoms may be appropriate. Regardless of how you choose to open this conversation with your child, remember to be open-minded, caring, and encouraging.

4. Form a team

Not all symptoms signal mental health concerns. If your child denies the signs it could very well be a situational, fleeting experience. On the other hand, particularly depending on their development and level of self-awareness, your child may not even recognize the signs after you highlight them. If that is the case, it is important to be cognizant of the signs, be keen to them as they may be displayed over time, and trust your level of knowledge.

Opening this dialogue with a child can help them to feel comfortable in addressing their problems. At this time it is crucial to continue to the dialogue. If possible, ask your child how you can be helpful. Sure, they may not know the clinical answer, but they may have simple needs that may go a long way such as needing an extra hug or a few minutes to talk.

It may be difficult for you to understand their symptoms, and in turn, your child may feel lonely, isolated, and misunderstood. Just because you may not have the same concerns doesn’t mean you cannot help them feel validated and understood. For one, they have your support. Your encouragement can be therapeutic. Beyond your words, explore other ways to empower your child.

For example, The Child Mind Institute has recently released a series of inspirational videos of celebrities who speak openly about their mental health struggles and how they have grown. James Van Der Beek discusses dyslexia, Gabrielle Union talks about post-traumatic stress disorder, and Lindsey Sterling shares about dealing with eating disorders . Beyond their diagnoses, these role models share their difficulties with finding help and the power of seeking help. These videos can be a helpful way to connect with and support your child.

5. Seek help

As noted above, not all problems require professional help. However, there are many concerns in which a supportive discussion may not suffice. In this case, all you need to do is expand your team. Helpers are available in schools, community centers, hospitals, research centers, religious institutions, and private practices. You may wish to start with your pediatrician. Perhaps you have a family or friend who is a mental health professional and they can point you in the right direction. You can complete a simple search or use a refined directory to find the right helper for you. Further, beyond individual therapy, finding support groups can be a helpful way to empower your child.

This guide is simple but, the process itself may not be simple. It can be intimidating to address mental health concerns with any loved one, much less a child. Nevertheless, early intervention is critical in promoting growth and wellness over the course of the lifespan. Further, although the tone of this guide alludes to guardians, any adult with a child in their care (e.g., teachers, coaches, babysitters, family members) should be mindful of these steps as they may see the symptoms that guardians may not see.

More from Shainna Ali Ph.D., LMHC, NCC
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