As many kids are headed back to school, you may observe behaviors that seem out of the norm. For a child, any period of transition or uncertainty can generate stress or anxiety. Additionally, kids have observed and experienced a lot recently which may have impacted their mental health.
According to the CDC, 7.1% of children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety and 3.2% with depression. According to the CDC, 1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
Some degree of anxiety and sadness is understandable given the tumultuous last two years, but distress that occurs almost every day and interferes with a kid’s overall functioning is cause for concern.
Those charged with leading kids often observe the beginnings of a mental health challenge but may not always feel fully equipped to help.
Here are some practical ways to help.
Truly See Your Kids
It’s very common for a child to experience shifts in mood and behaviors as they progress through different developmental stages. However, there are some behaviors that indicate that they are struggling to manage emotions.
- Becoming more irritable
- Losing interest in activities they once loved
- Isolating or withdrawing from you or their friends
Oftentimes, behaviors like anger or aggression are ways a kid asks, “Do you see me?”
Pay close attention to behaviors that seem peculiar or out of the ordinary for that child. Ask questions about how they are doing. This might look like conducting a brief check-in. A 5-minute mental health check-in is a great way to assess a child’s emotional health either individually or in a group setting.
To check-in with a kids’ mental health, here are some suggested questions.
- How have you been sleeping lately?
- Are you getting enough fun physical activity? Tell me about it.
- Do you get to hang out with the people you love?
- Is there someone you miss that you haven’t seen in awhile?
- What are you the most excited about?
- How are you doing, really?
- What’s worrying you about school/friends/life right now?
Validate Tough Emotions
It’s important that the kids you lead feel comfortable approaching you with any problem–big or small. When they do, no matter what they share, listen carefully and demonstrate empathy and support. You may not know how to respond when they are worried about things that seem odd or irrational to you. It can be also be challenging to respond if you simply do not agree with their perspective. Even so, it’s important to validate and refrain from judgment. Validation does not mean you agree with everything your kid is saying or doing. It just means you are willing to listen and be empathetic. In addition, it means that you acknowledge that this thing in their life feels big to them. For example, if your kid is afraid to go to school, let them know you understand what they are feeling and ask them what they think will help.
Speak Life Over Them
Oftentimes, kids who hold high expectations of themselves are prone to negative self-talk. Many of us can probably relate to this. While some negative self-talk is normal, too much can impact a child’s self-esteem. It can also impact how they see themselves and their ability to do things well.
The Bible has a lot to say about the power of words. In Proverbs 12:28, King Solomon, the wisest king in the Bible, reminds us about the power of our words.
Proverbs 16:24: “Kind words are like honey-sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”
Words can either build or tear down. Even when so much is outside of our control, we can choose to use our words wisely and to be kind. By using words that speak life, we can point kids to what Jesus says about them. Not what the world (or their inner self-critic) says about them.
So, how do we speak life? In my years of collaboration with youth leaders, I find that youth pastors are really good at this. If you need some ideas, here are a few things I say to my own kids.
You . . .
- . . . belong.
- . . . are fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:14)
- . . . have hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)
- . . . are loved and seen by God. (1 John 4:9)
Model Healthy Coping Skills
We all have our moments of anxiety and sadness, even if it is not all of the time. You can help the kids you lead learn how to deal with their powerful emotions by modeling healthy coping skills. When frustrated or disappointed, try not to bottle up those emotions. Instead, engage in activities that help you to feel calmer and more present.
If you’re feeling nervous, rather than keeping that to yourself, allow your kids to see you take a deep breath. Tell them why you did. Different activities such as box breathing, squeezing a stress ball, playing with play dough, coloring, or going for a walk can be great ways for managing big emotions. Share a couple of these skills with your kids and talk them through doing some of them on their own.
Seek Professional Help
It can feel scary not to know how to help a child who is emotionally struggling. There comes a time when you need to accept that despite all of the knowledge you have obtained and all of the coping skills you have modeled, you need help. You cannot handle everything all by yourself. And you shouldn’t. Encourage parents or caregivers to consult with their child’s pediatrician. The pediatrician can give the family a referral to a mental health therapist. If you are looking for a mental health therapist in your area, go to psychologytoday.com.
If you want to equip parents and caregivers to recognize the signs of mental health challenges and cope with their child’s mental health journey, Parent Cue has a course called Parenting with Mental Health in Mind Course. Click the link to find out how you can use it in your church.
Chinwé Williams, PhD, LPC, NCC is a licensed mental health therapist in Roswell, Ga specializing in child and adolescent anxiety, trauma, and women’s wellness. She is a private practice owner, professional speaker, and the co-author of “Seen: Healing Despair and Anxiety in Kids and Teens Through the Power of Connection.”