Mental health is a growing concern for millions of Americans. Many families are touched by some form of emotional or mental difficulty. Sadly, it’s not just a grown-up problem. Studies show that over 20% of children have some form of life-altering mental illness. As parents who want the best for their children, it can be scary to know what to do if we suspect our child may be suffering. Our goal at LCBC is to support you as you navigate these waters. The following is a list of important reminders to have these critical conversations with your children and take a proactive approach to address their mental well-being.
Know the signs
Many parents may suspect their children are dealing with some form of mental illness or disorder. Unfortunately, many feel they are ill-equipped to recognize the warning signs or symptoms. If you don’t know what to look for, you may accidentally miss early flags. The Mayo Clinic put together an article identifying some of the most common signs of mental illness in children.
If you suspect your child may be struggling with their mental health, talk to your child's healthcare provider and get their perspective and advice. Eventually, you’ll need to bridge this conversation with your kid themself. The following are important reminders before you have this critical talk:
Deal with your own feelings first
Each of us has our own history, stigmas, and beliefs about mental illness. We also have expectations and desires for our children. It is best to check all of that at the door. In this conversation, you do not want anything to prevent you from hearing your child and trying to understand what they are journeying through.
Talk to God
You are not having this conversation alone. God loves both you and your kid more than you can imagine. He will be a tremendous source of comfort and care in any healing process. He will also help you guide your conversation and open your heart and mind to have this talk. Make sure you set aside time to pray and process with him.
Pick your time and place wisely
Remember to look for a time and place when your child is ready to talk. This may be before bed, after dinner, or on a Saturday afternoon. Make sure this is a distraction-free time where your child is most likely to be comfortable being vulnerable.
Keep in mind, just because you’ve prayed and prepared your own heart for the conversation doesn’t mean your child will be ready to talk right away. Have patience, and don’t pressure your kid to open up before they’re ready. They may not yet realize they’re struggling, or they might be hesitant to talk because they need to sense that you care.
Be clear and direct
Feel free to address the conversation head-on. Have the courage to share what you have noticed and ask lots of questions. It’s important to start with “I” statements such as “I’ve noticed” or “I’ve seen.” Using “You” statements like “You aren’t” or “You don’t” can make your child feel blamed for their feelings.
Normalize getting help
Assure them that if they are struggling with mental or emotional struggles, it is as normal and treatable as physical problems. Remind them if they broke their leg, no one would blame them for being hurt. They would need help getting better. In the same way, when our emotions and minds are hurt, we also need help getting better. Remind them how it would look if you broke your leg and said you would work it out yourself instead of getting medical help.
Listen and validate their feelings
Be sure to listen to their feelings intently. While you may not know what it is like to be them and have never lived in their shoes, try to understand as best as you can. If your kid says they’re “fine,” don’t immediately challenge that. Try reminding your kid that even people who are fine need regular maintenance and help. Ask if they are happy being fine, or if they’d rather feel good or great. Remind them that you love them too much to allow them to struggle with these matters without help
Remember that listening isn’t just demonstrated by what you say in response, but also by how you behave while your kid is talking to you. Nonverbal cues go a long way in showing that you’re truly paying attention to what your child is sharing. Make sure your posture and facial expressions demonstrate that you’re listening and that you care about what your kid is talking about. Also, don’t be afraid of silence. Allowing space in your conversation, as uncomfortable as it might feel, can give valuable space for both you and your child to process.
Remind them that they aren’t alone
Help your child understand that they aren’t weird because they have struggles. Remind them that millions of kids and teens have similar daily struggles, and many get care and support. They may need the encouragement that their journey can stay between your family and the doctors or therapists if needed. There is no need for anyone else to know.
Healing takes time
We as parents often desire to resolve all matters in the first conversation. However, healing from mental illness is a process that often unfolds over time. Ultimately, your child has to want help, and it may take several conversations before they fully warm up to the idea.
Let them be part of the solution
Let Your kid be an active part of making plans for their recovery. They may not call all the shots, but it may help to feel like they have some influence. This way, they’ll feel like care is something they’re giving to themself instead of something that’s happening to them. This may involve letting them help select a therapist or decide what action steps at home will alleviate stress or anxiety.
In the end, as a parent, you play a critical part in your child's mental health recovery. Your proactiveness and compassion in these matters may be painful and challenging at times, but God will give you the strength and wisdom to love your child through even this season. Here are some more resources to help you navigate mental health issues with your kid:
LCBC stands for Lives Changed By Christ. We are one church in multiple locations across Pennsylvania. Find the location closest to you or join us for Church Online. We can’t wait to connect with you!