According to the CDC, 7.1 percent of children between the age of 3 and 17 (approximately 4.4 million) have been diagnosed with anxiety, while 3.2 percent of children in this same age group (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression. Also, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five teenagers between 13 and 18 will have at least one “severe mental disorder” during their life.
As the CDC further notes, mental disorders also change with age. For example, anxiety and depression are more common with increased age, while behavioral is more prevalent among children aged 6–11 years.
Children, as with adults, can experience a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, mood, eating, and Autism spectrum disorders, as well as ADHD and schizophrenia. As a result, they may display signs like:
Behavior changes, such as isolation, outbursts, crying, loss of interest, seeming quieter than usual and reverting back to less mature behavior.
Changes in thinking and feeling. These could include negative thoughts, trouble concentrating, feeling hopeless, and seeming sad, angry, guilty, or worried.
Physical changes like unexplained weight loss, headaches, tummy aches, insomnia, or having too much energy. Some children may display nervous habits like thumb sucking, nail-biting, or hair twisting.
If you’ve noticed these signs with your child, please don’t ignore them. It’s in their best interest, both in the short-and-long-term, to get them help as soon as possible. If you feel overwhelmed, start by talking to your child’s doctor. You can also find psychologists who work with children in settings like their school, community health centers, research centers, and local private practices.
Even after seeking help for your child, you still must play an active role in nurturing their mental health.
“The presence of a caring adult can make a big difference,” Dr. Donald Mordecai, MD, national leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente, told NBC News. “Studies show that even one safe, stable and nurturing relationship can be a major protective factor in the face of traumatic events.”
You can achieve this by:
Talking about your mental health by opening up about your own feelings to show them that it’s okay for them to acknowledge their feelings.
Frequently ask open-ended questions to check-in on them.
Neutralize your tone, as well as listen to and respect their feelings.
Remove distractions, like smartphones or video games, when checking-in.
Consider using emojis to help your child communicate their feelings.
Know the warning signs and never shrug them off.
While you can use the advice listed to start the conversation, here are more specific ways that you can talk to your children about their mental health by age.
Preschool Age Children
Children at this age do not need as much information or details. But, you should start helping them identify feelings as you would with colors and shapes.
“The best thing we can do for them as preschoolers is give them names,” says parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa. “When we teach kids to name embarrassed versus ashamed versus anxious versus sad … they get better and better at speaking their truth and naming it.”
You can also work with your child on coping mechanisms by asking them what helps them handle tough feelings, like drawing or giving you a hug.
Children in this age group may want more information. As such, they may ask a lot of questions. Answer them as directly as possible. The most important thing to keep in mind is to reassure them.
For grade-schoolers, Dr. Gilboa also recommends playing a game each night where each family member shares a high and low from their day. “A high gets you a whole story and a low gets a whole other story,” Gilboa said. This shows children that: “I am the person you bring the hard stuff to and I am the person you bring the good stuff to.”
For middle schoolers who push back, be persistent and continue to help develop their self-esteem.
Teenagers are old enough to handle and discuss more complex information regarding their mental health. However, they’re still trying to figure out who to talk to. They may be more comfortable opening up to their peers, but this could lead to misinformation.
“Don’t wonder if you should talk to a high schooler, you definitely should,” Gilboa said. “Every teenager needs to be having a conversation with a trusted adult.”
The key is to be specific, “give them some autonomy” if they ask for it, and don’t take it personally if they want to talk with another adult.