How to help your child when you suspect a mental health concern
Parents and caregivers are often put in impossible situations trying to navigate and balance their own mental health and the mental health of their children. We are all doing the best we can, and this has become increasingly challenging during the Pandemic as the mental health crisis continues to increase. Many parents/caregivers are asking how to recognize if their child may be struggling, when to intervene, and how to get support.
Let’s start with the first question. How can a parent/caregiver recognize when a child needs help? While we can not list each and every sign and symptom of mental health concerns, we can focus on changes that may indicate someone is struggling.
Signs that a person is struggling can present in different ways. You may notice behavioral changes such as: withdrawing from others and activities they previously enjoyed, increased irritability, crying, being afraid, sharing worries, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, changes in hygiene routines, and energy levels. Parents/caregivers may also notice changes in academic performance, socialization (hanging out with different peers or not interacting with anyone). Some children may also have physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches that cannot be explained by a medical professional or specific illness.
Children and adolescents may also have increased difficulty remembering, understanding, and organizing things. They may struggle to complete daily activities that were previously not a concern. In short, your child may not seem like themselves.
When should a parent/caregiver intervene? Early intervention is important. Start the conversation when you first notice concerning behaviors. Check-in with your child and talk with them about what they are currently experiencing and the concerns you have. This may be difficult, and children and adolescents may not want to engage in the conversation and/or may not be able to share what they are experiencing. That is okay. If that is the case, parents/caregivers should continue to encourage children to share with them or another trusted adult. If your child has demonstrated concerning changes for a while, know that it is never too late to start the conversation and seek support.
You may be wondering how to start the conversation. While there is no one right way, consider something like, “I noticed that you are spending more time in your room, what is going on?” Focusing on what is concerning without judgment, problem behaviors or blaming can help children open up. Ask what they are thinking and feeling and then listen. Listen without judgment, without offering solutions, without being defensive, just listen. Think about the best time to have the conversation. It is often helpful to engage in the conversation while doing another activity such as cooking, completing chores, coloring, etc. This makes it easier for the child to engage and open up. Let them know that you are there for them and that they do not have to cope alone. If they do not want to open up to you that is okay, meet them where they are and connect them with someone they will talk with.
Where can you turn to for support? The Iowa Mental Health/Well-Being site (https://iowaaeamentalhealth.org/) provides information regarding mental health awareness, finding support (providers), advocacy, and self-care. Through this site parents/caregivers can gather contact information for the Mental health region they reside in. Mental health regions help you identify providers and other available supports in your county.
What else can we do? Consider connecting with other community agencies and providers. Please Pass the Love (pleasepassthelove.org), a not-for-profit organization, offers a variety of mental health learning opportunities and supports for children, adolescents, and adults. In addition, Iowa National Alliance for Mental Illness (Iowa NAMI) offers support groups for those living with mental illness and caregivers. For additional information email:email@example.com or call 515-254-0417. Central Rivers AEA also offers student and family toolboxes on the AEA Well-Being website (https://www.centralriversaea.org/mtss-for-well-being/self-care/).
If there is an immediate need or mental health crisis contact Mobile Crisis support through Your Life Iowa (https://yourlifeiowa.org), (855) 581-8111Text: (855) 895-8398) and they will help connect you to support.
You are not alone. Many of us are struggling to maintain our own mental health and support those we love. If you identify any of the above signs within yourself or your loved ones there is support. The resources listed above support children, adolescents, and adults. There is help and there is hope.
Dr. Dana Miller is a School Psychologist with Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA), based in Cedar Falls. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Central Rivers AEA serves over 65,000 students in 18 counties of Iowa. To learn more, visit www.centralriversaea.org.