Don’t Ignore Children’s and Teens’ Mental Health

Caring Mother Hugging, Comforting Depressed Upset Teenage Daughter

Everyone, including children and teens, needs some alone time. But, if children are spending unusual amounts of time isolated in their rooms, or if their behavior raises concerns for you, it may be time to open up a discussion with them.

Even before the coronavirus hit, mental health problems such as depression and anxiety were rising in children ages 6 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lorri Perez, senior program director for the Child and Family Strengthening Center and Professional Services at Family & Children’s Services, says that isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic can make these problems worse.

“A lot of the kids that we see for mental health are already struggling with school anyway,” Perez says. “Online school ramped up the anxiety for kids and their parents.”

Many times, parents are at a loss as to how to help their children, a feeling that has heightened with the length of the pandemic coupled with cooler weather.

“Now we’re starting to see fatigue,” Perez says. “People are tired of this. They can’t go outside as much for relief. People being stuck all together – that’s stressful, too.”

Children who have struggled with depression and anxiety in the past may be especially at risk. The isolation during the pandemic has given them an excuse to withdraw.

“They keep withdrawing more and more,” Perez says. “They think that’s helping them because it feels comfortable, but it makes them more stuck in their heads with those negative thoughts. If we really retreat into ourselves, we start to live in our heads, and we think a lot of negative things about ourselves.”

Perez offers the following suggestions:

Normalize their reactions and understand your own emotions.

Before you talk to your child, check in with your own emotions and be truthful about them. Make sure you are calm before reaching out to your child. If you notice your child doing something out of the ordinary, such as playing video games all day alone, you might say, “I notice you’re sitting in your room a lot, and I know it might feel good to be alone in your room. Let’s talk about some things you can do to get you doing things.” Perez says the idea is to validate their feelings without judging them, not to make kids feel bad about what they’re doing, but to help them come out of it.

Open the conversation, listen and be open for discussion.

It may be uncomfortable for some parents to talk about emotions, and those conversations can feel awkward if we haven’t had them before. Perez says that’s okay. Use language that feels right for you, but don’t get into a power struggle by trying to force children to talk or to take action. If your child assures you that everything is fine or shuts you down, give it time.

“Be consistent,” Perez says. “You may have to go back and keep asking. Say, ‘I’ll check on you tomorrow or check in with you later today.’”

Reassure them and be truthful.

“In uncertain times, kids look to us,” Perez says. Kids and teens need to know that someone cares about them. Assure children that you love them, even when they may be acting in an unlovable way, and that you can work through problems together. Acknowledge that it’s a tough time for you, too, and talk about strategies that you use to help yourself. Model those strategies. Children, especially young children, like routine. They may also need help naming their emotions. While you can’t promise that everything will be fine, you can offer reassurance.

“Tell them, ‘I’m here; I love you. I’m going to be here, and I’m going to take care of you’,” Perez says.

Be present.

“A lot of older kids and teenagers may not be comfortable with saying, ‘I care’,” Perez says. “Sometimes your kid may just need your presence.”

Physical presence and physical touch is a human need, so find ways to provide that presence for your children.

“Don’t be on your phone; don’t do other things,” Perez says. “Listen. Be there for them. Try to have some sort of conversation with them. Be physically and mentally present. Seize opportunities such as time in the car or cooking together in the kitchen to talk with teens.”

Perez says that regularly checking in with children and teens in a nonjudgmental way can help keep the channels of communication open, and will let children know that they can come to you with their concerns.

Reach out for help or to talk to someone if you feel you need it, or if you are concerned about your child.

Mental Health Resources

Family & Children’s Services: 918.587.9471;

COPES/Crisis Hotline/Help: Adults and children who are in crisis and need immediate help can call COPES 24/7 at 918.744.4800

If you think your child or adolescent is suicidal, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 911 if there is an emergency. 

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