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Navigating Mental Health in Children: Signs, Support, and Solutions

written by Dr. Jennie Gary

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Hi. I’m Doctor Jennie. Welcome back to Kid’s Corner.

Mental health is a topic that carries a lot of stigma and judgment for many people. But mental health issues are actually quite common in children. The good news is they are treatable.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues have skyrocketed for many children and teens. Getting help from your child’s doctor can make a big difference.

As a pediatrician, I have seen firsthand the widespread impact that poor mental health can have on a young person’s life. It can impact learning, development, and even physical health. A mental health condition can also make it harder for your child to manage their feelings and behaviors.

They may struggle with things like doing school work, making friends, or getting along with their siblings. This can be very stressful for a child and for a parent.

So how do you know if it’s just normal childhood development, teenage angst, or a true medical problem? Let’s review some of the symptoms of two of the most common mental health conditions.

The first is depression.

Signs of depression may include changes in mood, like feeling more grouchy or sad, losing interest in one’s usual activities, a decline in grades, not wanting to spend time with friends or family, changes in appetite, which can mean eating more or less than usual or changes in sleep, which may be sleeping more or less than usual.

Depression can run in families and it can also be triggered by stressful life events. If you do have concerns for depression, talk to your child’s doctor right away to have them screened.

Fortunately, we have many different treatment options available that can help. Usually, treatment will involve counseling, and sometimes medication.

Remember, depression is a medical condition. It is neither your nor your child’s fault. But we do know that treating depression is incredibly important.

If your child ever exhibits severe symptoms of depression or make statements about suicide, please take them to the nearest or call 911.

Another common mental health condition seen in children and teens today is anxiety.

Of course, everyone feels anxious or worried sometimes. All children may worry when it comes time to give a big presentation or when they have a test. But when that fear or worry becomes frequent enough to cause interferences in your child’s day-to-day life, that could be due to a medical condition called generalized anxiety disorder.

Some of the ways that anxiety can present in kids can include avoiding social settings, being overly clingy, difficulty sleeping, or frequent nightmares, a frequent fear about the safety or even the safety of their family members, refusing to go to school, lack of self-confidence or low self-esteem, or even physical complaints, like frequent stomachaches or headache.

Just be careful not to write off more serious physical complaints like chest pain or severe pain as anxiety.

Always take your child to the for any severe physical symptoms.

If you’re concerned about any of these features in your child, I encourage you to speak with their doctor to have them screened for anxiety or other mental health conditions.

Remember, we have plenty of treatment options to help your child. All you have to do is reach out to your doctor to ask for help.

You might be wondering what types of treatment there are. Usually, most mental health conditions will respond best to therapy and sometimes to a combination of therapy and medication.

These treatments are typically directed by a psychologist, and or a psychiatrist, but your child’s doctor will be able to give you more detailed personalized information.

If you are waiting to meet with your doctor for more help, or if you just want to improve your child’s mental well-being, there are many things you can do at home to help.

First, talk to your child often. Encourage open judgment-free communication.

Listen closely and validate your child’s emotions.

Let them know you are there to help and that you love them.

Validating your child’s emotions can help your child feel understood and valued. It can also teach your child to accept their emotions and to work through them.

Try to respond calmly when your child is upset. If you’re feeling emotional, it’s okay to take time to yourself.

Be understanding of the challenges that your child faces and try not to minimize how they feel. Remember that your child’s problems are as real to them as yours are to you.

Something that seems so small to you might be a very big thing to your child.

For example, I once thought it was so silly that my daughter had a big tantrum over losing a sequence she found on the ground. But then I thought, “How would I feel if I lost a piece of jewelry that was important to me?” I can relate to feeling frustrated, upset, and sad. So, try to relate to your children’s emotions and try not to say things like “you’re fine” or “stop crying.”

For teens, acceptance and belonging are big themes. So, try not to diminish any feelings they have about feeling left out or not fitting in.

Next, make sure your child is getting good self-care. This can include getting enough sleep, eating a healthy and well balanced diet, not skipping meals, limiting screen time, and getting enough physical activity.

It is also important that they have opportunities to socialize with family and friends.

Some children may even benefit from creative outlets like doing art, writing in a journal, or playing music.

You can also teach your child healthy ways to manage their stress, such as with deep breathing or meditation.

You can also communicate with your child’s teachers and counselors to get more insight into how your child is doing. Kids spend so much time at school. And sometimes teachers might have better insight into their social interactions than parents do at home.

Next, talk to your child’s doctor about any symptoms or changes in your child’s mood or behavior that you’re concerned about.

Finally, find a counselor or therapist for your child. You can ask your child’s doctor for a referral, contact their school to see if a counselor is available, or you can even call your health insurance plan to ask for a referral directly.

Remember, mental health problems are common and you should not feel like a bad parent. Just the fact that you’re here listening and learning, shows that you are a committed good parent.

Thanks for watching another Kid’s Corner. I’m Doctor Jennie. I’ll see you next time.

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