Let’s stop trying to fix children’s mental health without involving parents in the process!

Peace at Home October 25, 2022 | Ruth Freeman

Post-pandemic children and teens are struggling with alarming rates of anxiety and depression as well as suicide. Because a national emergency has been declared, states and communities are quickly taking action such as increased funding for mental health services, more mental health screenings in pediatricians’ offices, expanded training for mental health clinicians, improved social emotional learning in schools and much, much more. However, there is one important piece of this puzzle that has been pretty much ignored – parents and caregivers. Sounds strange, but surprisingly true. 

Parents who are concerned about their kids’ mental health often find it difficult to know the signs that therapy is needed. Any persistent changes in eating, sleeping, friendships, school performance or extracurricular activity involvement can be a yellow flag. Trust your gut and ask for help. Start with your pediatrician or school social worker or psychologist for referrals. 

Most clinicians agree that consulting effectively with parents can maximize positive outcomes for kids in therapy. However, parent involvement often does not extend beyond the intake session and brief periodic check-ins. If your child is in therapy, make sure you are part of the goal setting process, that you know what progress looks like and ask your child’s therapist for any ways you can change your behavior to better support your child. You may also want to be interested in what kind of approaches your child’s therapist is using and learn any strategies your child is learning so you can support them. There should be a pretty big role for you in your child’s treatment – reach out to your child’s therapist and start the conversation. 

And finally kids don’t come with directions. Parents and caregivers often don’t recognize how they can help protect children’s mental health, especially in the context of a worldwide pandemic and its grueling aftermath. So let’s start here – one of your most important and perhaps challenging jobs right now is to protect your child’s emotional wellbeing. We can hear you thinking to yourself, How??? It isn’t as complicated as you think. In fact, you want to focus on the opposite of complications – yes, simplifying your everyday life helps. 

Your most important task is to focus your energy on triggering calm, not stress, in your child. How do you win cooperation without lecturing, nagging, criticizing, yelling, threatening and punishing? Strengthen your relationship and use positive approaches. Keep in mind that winning cooperation is much less important than increasing the stress chemicals in your child’s brain and in yours. Yes, they have to do their homework and get chores done and treat each other respectfully – at least within reason – but their mental health must come first. 

Here are a few  important tips – spoiler alert – none of these are as easy as they sound::

  • Learn to ask open-ended questions in relaxed ways on a regular basis. Maybe it happens best in the car or on a walk or a special breakfast out. Strive to be really open to hearing what’s true for your child. Listen to struggles without fixing them – start by focusing on just understanding your child’s world from their point of view. And reflect their emotions back to them with acceptance and compassion without trying to change who they are or how they experience things.
  • Work together with your child to make sure they have downtime, regular bedtimes without technology and some kind of physical activity that they enjoy. 
  • Stay in regular contact with your child’s teachers, coaches and other adults in their lives – build community with them and listen to their experiences of your child. 
  • Work together with your child to manage media habits and keep agreements. If it feels impossible, get some support from your child’s medical provider, a school social worker or psychologist or trusted family friend. Don’t go it alone if you can’t come up with a plan and don’t give up either. 
  • Recognize that persistent misbehavior or withdrawal can be symptoms, not behavior to manage. Your child isn’t giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time. Be curious about challenging behaviors and try to understand the story they are telling you. 
  • Make your home a psychologically safe place – refrain from judgements, criticism, unsolicited advice, harsh discipline, or emotional withdrawal. 
  • And finally, pay attention to your own emotional state. We all mirror each other’s emotions – when your child is struggling you may feel the same way. And it goes in the other direction as well. Because of the mirror neurons in our brain, kids pick up on our inner state. They are unlikely to feel any less stressed than you do.

At Peace At Home Parenting, we are cheerleaders for parents. We know you can’t know all this or even once you read the list, you may not feel confident about using these approaches. With a little help, it will get a lot easier. And you don’t have to do it all and definitely don’t want to try to do it perfectly! 

Don’t hesitate to reach out. It really does take a village and then some. Reach us at Solutions@peaceathomeparenting.com

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