Tips for Discussing Mental Health with Children and Teens

Mental health-related emergency room visits increased substantially for children and teens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of related visits were up 24% for children five to 11 years old and 31% for children 12 to 17 years when compared to the same time period in 2019.

The stress of a pandemic that turned routines and support systems upside down has been difficult for many, but children and adolescents might not be equipped with the same coping skills as adults. They also might not have the words to explain what they’re feeling.

While starting a conversation about mental health with children and teens might seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be. And, talking about mental health can help parents and caregivers ensure that any serious concerns are caught and addressed.

The following are strategies adults can put in place to make sure mental health is a regular topic of conversation with the children and teens they care about.

Normalize talking about feelings and everything else.

For children and teens to approach the adults in their lives about the big stuff, it’s important to regularly check in about the day-to-day. Simply making time for regular chats is an important way to stay connected. Being observant about a child’s everyday mood can help parents more quickly identify when a child is feeling sad, mad or lonely. Naming these feelings and talking about them in age-appropriate ways can build a foundation for more serious discussions if they are needed.

Listen without judgment.

When a child or teen is experiencing emotional difficulty, it’s important to be supportive and listen without judgment. Whatever it is they might be going through could sound minor to an adult, but letting children and teens know they are heard and that their feelings are valid will build trust. Although it’s tempting to “fix” the problem, oftentimes it’s enough for kids to feel their concerns and emotions are understood.

Discuss difficult topics.

Discussing topics such as depression or suicide might feel scary, especially when talking to children and teens, but being open and honest about mental health conditions can save lives. While there’s a perception that talking about suicide could lead to increased thoughts of suicide, research has shown that the opposite is true: talking about suicide can encourage those in danger to seek help. Adults should feel empowered to talk about their own mental health struggles with their children along with the coping mechanisms they use to maintain balance.

Know when to seek help.

Children often exhibit symptoms of worsening mental health that parents should be on the lookout for. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, these may include:

  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Frequent disobedience or aggression
  • Substance use

If parents or caregivers suspect a child needs help, talking to a primary care physician is a good first step. They can evaluate the child to determine if any physical issues could be contributing to poor mental health or recommend further treatment from a mental health provider. If there’s any immediate concern about suicide, adults should immediately seek help by calling emergency services or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

About the author: Dr. Kristyn Gregory, D.O., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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