Parents are stressed when their kids are stressed. The CDC continues to highlight concerning trends in adolescent mental health even as the pandemic fades. It’s imperative that as parents and caregivers we give extra time and attention to our children’s mental health. Summer is a great time to start opening the lines of communication with your kids so that come September they have a safe place to share, feel seen and find support. This will bring a sense of compassion, curiosity and control into a space typically reserved for fear, shame and silence.
A certain amount of anxiety is a normal stress response to things like exams, sports and dating. But when children show signs of something more serious or chronic, we need to take a closer look.
I was an anxious and, at times, depressed child. Part predisposition, part volatile environment. Our kids are living in a volatile world, too, from the pandemic to social media. There are fears, pressures and social dynamics we can’t relate to.
When my panic attacks started at 6 years old, you’d think that would have been a red flag. But my parents hoped they were isolated incidents and my perfectionism, people-pleasing and overachieving convinced them of such.
Unfortunately, this seems all too common. There are so many reasons why entertaining mental health issues is more complicated than physical ones. They can be more difficult to recognize, diagnose, digest and treat and the management and recovery process can be uncomfortable and difficult to navigate.
Parents may also struggle with the idea that their child is struggling with something they don’t know how to fix. And stigma still plays a big role. They likely want to protect their child and the family from the stigma surrounding it. Finally, they may fear being blamed or even blame themselves, the shame of which may be too much to bear.
Here are some red flags to watch out for and what you can do to support the children in your life.
What to look for.
- Physical: Panic attacks, sleep disruption, food — not eating, overeating — gastrointestinal issues, chronic headaches and fatigue.
- Psychological and emotional: Both overachieving and underachieving. The overachiever adopts destructive perfectionism, internalizes pressure, has unrealistic expectations, has difficulty accepting gray areas and always needs to know the schedule, rules and consequences. The underachiever disengages, fails ahead of time to relieve pressure, is critical of achievers, adopts low expectations and lives in the gray area. They break rules to break free, disregarding the long term consequences. These two extremes are the flip sides of the same coin. They are both likely being triggered by anxious and/or depressive thoughts. Other symptoms are irrational thinking, catastrophizing and phobias.
- Social: Over-attachment to certain people or things. Disinterest in and avoidance of social situations like school, sports, extra-curricular activities, friends and family time.
What to do.
- Give them vocabulary. Kids and young adults have little to no experience with expressing their feelings. Give them the words they need to communicate. Replace “Are you okay?” and “How are you?” with “Are you stressed/overwhelmed/scared?” “Do you feel pressure? From where?” “What are some thoughts that stress you out the most?” “Are you sleeping okay? What do you think about when your head hits the pillow?” “Do any thoughts scare you?”
- Identify the pressure points. Help them find the source in order to alleviate unrealistic expectations and set healthy goals and boundaries.
- Catastrophize with them. Play out the worst case scenario, then the best case. This will help them emotionally regulate by seeing both can be true. Then identify the most likely scenario and plan for that together. Action can be a great way to process anxiety, create a sense of control and lift a depressive fog.
- Don’t be so afraid of being labeled as part of the problem that you can’t be part of the solution. The reality is that the first place a doctor or teacher will look when a child appears anxious or depressed is home. What is going on at home? It’s a fair question. Be brave enough to examine your potential role (behaviors, expectations, etc.) for the sake of the child.
- Reassure them that this is normal. They are not fundamentally broken. While mental issues carry different stigma than physical ones, they are no less treatable depending on the diagnosis.
- Analyze their crutches and self-medication. Young adulthood is a time of experimentation with alcohol and drugs and can become a slippery slope when combined with mental health struggles. Managing the symptoms with natural remedies like talk and cognitive behavioral therapy, coaching and coping skills can give them the tools they need to process their difficult emotions and alleviate the need to numb their mental and physical discomfort.
- Find an outlet for them to relieve the pressure. Creative, challenging and/or artistic work for the mind, and physical activities for the body help metabolize the anxious energy building up in their system and have been found more effective than prescription drugs for depression.
Keep in mind that a child’s ability to hold their breath doesn’t mean they’re not drowning. Releasing the pressure valve can help bring them back to the surface. The goal is always to create a safe space for your child to express their fears and struggles and ultimately, reflect and reveal their authentic self.
Wendy Tamis Robbins is an anxiety expert, bestselling author of “The Box: An Invitation to Freedom From Anxiety” and founder of CAVE Club, a wellness community exclusively for professional women. She works globally as a mental health and wellness coach, speaker and advocate.