Talking about mental health: A guide for parents
As a parent, you want the best for your children. You may feel a burden when they’re sick or struggling, and keep a close eye on them if you suspect something is wrong. So it’s important to know what you’re looking for, how to deal with it, and where to turn to for help.
Some children don’t open up as easily as others. But even though they may not explicitly tell you something is wrong, there are things to look for.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that parents and caregivers should consider seeking help if their child shows any of the following behaviors:
Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
Experiencing sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing
Getting in fights
Not eating, or a change in diet
Having intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
Having severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
Showing drastic changes in behavior or personality
How to respond
If you are concerned about your child’s behaviors, it is important to get appropriate care. But it can be confusing about where to turn.
“As is the case with many issues, your child’s primary care physician is a great resource,” says SSM Health psychiatrist Dr. Bhawani Ballamudi. “They’re well-versed on a variety of issues, and should be able to determine if your child needs to be seen by a specialist.”
Also try to stay calm, and keep in mind that your child isn’t at fault. Some adults say kids are too young to understand some of life’s stressors. But they’re affected by trauma, transitions, and current events just like us. In addition, kids are dealing with social and school stress that we may overlook.
“Bullying and difficulties with school and classmates are real issues,” reminds Dr. Ballamudi. “Even though they may seem trivial to adults, kids struggle with them day in and day out.”
Time to Talk
Starting the conversation may be the most difficult part of the process. You can try leading with the following questions, and make sure to really listen to how your child responds.
Can you tell me more about what is happening? How you are feeling?
Sometimes you need to talk to an adult about your feelings. I’m here to listen. How can I help you feel better?
Do you feel like you want to talk to someone else about your problem?
I’m worried about your safety. Can you tell me if you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?
There are appropriate times and places to have these conversations. Find a time when your child will feel safe and comfortable. Don’t try to speak down to them – communicate in a straightforward manner at a level that is appropriate for their development.
“It can be difficult for kids to put their feelings into words,” says Dr. Ballamudi. “At times, your child may become confused or get mad at himself or herself, so it could be necessary to slow down or back up in the conversation. Problems won’t always be solved in one conversation, but at the end of the day, at least you’re talking, which is a goal in itself.”
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