Mental health in children is a topic that is rarely discussed among adults. The blame for this is multi-faceted. We have less time to spend with our children due to societal and financial obligations. Stigma about mental health also prevents us from talking about the topic in general.
Children spend a good portion of their lives now online, where misinformation spreads like wildfire. Bullying, peer pressure, and other societal issues cause problems in our youth that are rarely addressed until it’s too late. This is why it’s crucial now to speak to your children and help guide them into healthy habits.
It has always been said that it’s easier to prevent a fire than to put it out. The same can be said about our issues around mental health. Not everyone interacts with children daily unless they are family, parents, or work directly with children. For those that spend a significant amount of time with children, here are some tips to help the children in your life develop healthy habits for their mental health.
Provide a Safe Place to Talk About Mental Health
Children are influenced strongly by their peers and are taught early not to talk about the problems they have as a result. Sometimes, they may feel as though their feelings and thoughts don’t matter. They may even feel as though they are being “crazy” for feeling certain feelings.
This can be rectified by reassuring and reinforcing to children that their feelings matter, no matter how big or small. Tell them that you will always be there to listen to them should they want to talk. They won’t be judged, and you won’t get angry at them. You will just be there to listen and provide validation for their feelings.
It is also helpful to remind them that you can give advice should they ask for it. If you don’t know the answer to their questions, offer to help them find the answer. By providing a safe place, you help the child learn to seek and accept help if they need it. This is an important skill that many people don’t learn due to society forcing the idea that people must always be self-reliant. By teaching children they can ask for help and get it, you may potentially save their life in the future.
Teach Children How to Recognize the Signs of Mental Health Problems
Some mental health disorders are more common in children than they are in adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression and anxiety in children have increased over the years. The symptoms of these disorders include prolonged periods of sadness, feelings of fear and dread, and problems sleeping. Just like children are taught to recognize when they don’t feel well, such as when they have an upset stomach, the same should be done for mental health.
Discussions of such should be kept age appropriate and worded in ways that can be understood by children. Avoid using metaphors and speak simply and clearly. For example, one could explain depression to a child like this:
“Depression is when you feel sad or tired all the time, and sometimes you might not know why. It can make you want to sleep a lot or not want to play your favorite games. Sometimes, adults can feel like that too. If you ever feel sad, know that you can always talk to me and I will help you. Sadness is a feeling that is natural and you are not bad or wrong for feeling it.”
It’s essential to reassure children that they won’t be in trouble for experiencing mental health issues. The same goes for issues like bullying, where children are often blamed for “making themselves targets.” Some mental health disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can often be hand-waved away as a child just being fidgety or lazy. It’s important for you to help a child recognize when they may have a problem and be prepared to advocate for their mental health if need be.
Change Your Language and Behavior to Promote Healthy Habits in Children
Humans are social creatures. As a result, we learn a lot about social cues and behavior by watching the adults in our lives. Children depend greatly on adults to help them learn how to navigate society. Part of this is why the stigma around mental health is still so negative. Children watch and listen to how adults talk and behave and emulate that same behavior and language. This is why you must make a change yourself to positively influence the next generation.
Treat people, especially people in need of help, with compassion and respect. Show children that no matter what, a person is worthy of support should they ask for it. Denounce harmful stereotypes and teach children that what they see in the media is not always the truth.
Remove harmful language from your vocabulary and encourage children to use less stigmatizing terms for people. For example, a person is struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), not a “junkie.” A person living with schizophrenia is not out to harm people, and to think so is a cruel stereotype. It’s essential to combat what the media has done to the vulnerable members of our society and teach children to think critically about what they see.
Remember that little eyes are watching, and how you treat people directly influences the next generation. Young people are impressionable; by learning to be kind to others, children also learn to be kind to themselves, which is perhaps the most important lesson about mental health to learn.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.