Some kids are really struggling and they need our help. The California Healthy Kids Survey 2021 found that one in three students in our community reported experiencing mental health concerns, such as sadness or feelings of hopelessness. Adolescence has never been easy—many of us remember those awkward, cringe-worthy moments from our own teen years—but as parents, what can we do to address this collective cry for help?
We’re All in This Together
For starters, we can acknowledge that the mental health crisis among our children is real, not just in Orange County, but across the country. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Youth Mental Health issued in December 2021, young people everywhere face “unprecedented challenges that are uniquely hard to navigate.”
Too often, the Advisory states, “young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth—telling them they are not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, or rich enough.”
To add insult to injury, research shows that youth who struggle with stress, anxiety, and self-esteem issues often turn to alcohol and other drugs as a way to self-medicate. When youth use drugs and alcohol to numb their pain, they miss out on learning healthier ways to work through their mental health challenges.
Here’s the Good News
Thankfully, stress and anxiety are treatable and often preventable. By recognizing that mental health is an essential part of overall health, we can help our children embrace emotional self-care and develop coping skills so that they grow into happy, hopeful adults who thrive.
Tips for Protecting Your Child’s Mental Health
Below are recommendations, culled from the Surgeon General’s report, for how parents can engage their children on mental health topics, help them build resiliency, and address emerging health care challenges.
- Be the best role model you can be by taking care of your own mental and physical health.
Talk to your child about the importance of mental health and seek help when you need it. Show positive ways to deal with stress, such as taking breaks, getting enough sleep, exercising, eating balanced meals, maintaining regular routines, staying connected with family and friends, and taking time to unplug from technology and social media.
- Provide a supportive, stable, and predictable home environment.
Help your child stick to a regular and predictable daily schedule, such as regular dinnertime and bedtime. Spend time with your child on activities that are meaningful to them, show them love and acceptance, praise them for the things they do well, and listen to them. Encourage children to ask for help when they need it. Be thoughtful about whether, and how, to discuss stressful topics such as financial and marital problems. The American Psychological Association offers tips on how to talk with your child about difficult topics.
- Encourage healthy social relationships with peers.
Since peers can play a major role (both positive and negative) in youth development, it’s important to help your child learn how to deal with peer pressure. Have open conversations with your child about their values and teach them to be confident and comfortable in expressing their needs and boundaries.
- Try to minimize negative influences and behaviors.
Talk to your child early about the risks of alcohol and other drugs, both short-term (car crashes and other accidents) and long-term (reduced cognitive abilities). The earlier a child or adolescent begins using substances, chances of developing substance use problems are greater.
- Minimize access to means of self-harm.
Dispose of unused or expired prescriptions and make sure medications are out of reach. If you choose to keep firearms in the home, ensure that they are stored safely: unloaded and locked up.
- Be attentive to your child’s online time.
Digital technology can help kids connect with friends and family, learn about current events, express themselves, and access telehealth and other resources. At the same time, children can have negative experiences online, such as being bullied, finding harmful information, and negatively comparing themselves to others.
- Look out for warning signs of distress and seek help when needed.
Look for irritability, anger, withdrawal, and other changes in your child’s thoughts, appearance, performance at school, sleeping or eating patterns, or other concerning behaviors. If you notice changes, let your child know you’re there for them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help by talking to a doctor, nurse, or other professional, or looking into other available resources in your community.