By Stephanie Thompson, Crosswalk.com
It’s so easy to forget that social media posts may not tell the whole story. Lots of struggles may be occurring outside the snapshot view. Mental illness is one of them. It carries a cultural stigma which often prevents people from seeking treatment. The onset of COVID-19, presented additional challenges to mental health stability. The rapid changes made to societal rhythms, employment, and relationships in order to prevent its spread affected all of us regardless of age.
Mental health conditions are common among teens and young adults. 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses develop by age 14 and 75% develop by age 24. Understandably, recognizing that your child is experiencing mental health concerns and how to treat them can be difficult. Human development is just that-development.
As parents, it can feel confusing to know what behaviors are common to certain stages in life and when outside intervention is necessary. Here are five ways parents can support their children's mental health.
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1. Engage with Your Child
Building on a relationship that is based on unconditional love, trust and open communication is a proactive way to access for parents to assess their child’s wellbeing. However, some kids may not communicate feelings easily, or have a hard time with vulnerability or try to hold onto privacy.
In addition, it is tempting to think that the kids who quietly appear to have it all together may actually be struggling inside.
Change or stress can bring out challenges to mental health. COVID’s ripple effects is such an example.
No school. No playdates. No camps. No pool outings. The world as kids know it has been thoroughly upended and they are justifiably anxious, whether they show it or not. It’s up to the adults in the room to get them to open up about those feelings so that they can be addressed. Doing so takes finesse, curiosity, and a very light touch.
How do parents get their kids to open up? Here are a few ideas.
Interact through activities: puzzles, crafts, and games can be a nonthreatening venue that leads to conversations.
Watch movies or television shows together: ask questions regarding the feelings of characters. (ie: How would you feel if that happened?)
Ask open ended questions, like:
What do you miss most about your friends?
If you were the president, what would you say to our country to help people feel safe?
Have you enjoyed watching church online, or would you rather go to church?
Have you wondered why God would allow the Coronavirus to spread?
Find more suggestions from this article here.
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2. Acknowledge Concerns
Author and Speaker Jen Hatmaker’s words remind us of own our stories: “Lord, teach me to parent the children I have, not the child I was, or the kids I thought I would have.”
So many factors can lead toward struggles with mental health. We all have different personalities, resilience abilities, responses to environmental stimuli and genetic compositions.
Trying to discern what behaviors are worth further consideration can be hard. Certainly, children and teens are learning through trial and error. In addition, the brain continues development until people are in their mid-twenties. So how do you know if your child is in need of more direct or professional help?
Personal connection is a good start. If you know of another parent whose child has sought treatment for mental health concerns, reach out to them. Obviously, it should be someone you feel is comfortable sharing their experience. This opportunity provides support as you navigate this new place and can help you find local resources.
5 Signs Your Child Needs Professional Help cites these behaviors as a possible wake up call:
- Their emotions are mismatched with their circumstances.
- They significantly alter physical habits or other changes.
- They become defiant.
- They become afraid of everything.
- They would rather quit than fail.
The internet provides an abundance of resources. The Clay Center for Healthy Minds includes references for help concerning specific issues. Type “COVID” in the search window for those resources. Mayo Clinic also offers a summary of understanding mental illness in children, including symptoms and next steps.
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3. Recognize the Many Forms of Restoration
There is no Biblical basis for believing that we can avoid suffering. Jesus modeled and reminded us of the contrary. However, he also ushered in a kingdom that promised the beginning of restoration. For people struggling with mental illness, that may involve many different forms.
Medication: Parents of children with mental health issues may struggle with embracing the use of medication to help their child. There may be a variety of reasons for the hesitation. Each family should consult with a medical professional to make their decision. However, it is important to remember that many afflictions of the body need intervention with medication to help healing begin.
I believe that God has gifted individuals to develop medications that help restore “normal” processes of the brain and give those affected a better quality of life.
Non-Medication: Our bodies and minds are intertwined. Often, we don’t recognize how they work together but feel the consequences when they don’t. Sometimes, calming an anxious mind can happen through learning and implementing relaxation practices such as yoga, mindfulness , and breathing techniques, and exercise. In addition, therapy (discussed below) can help get to the root of a problem as well as offer tools to use for behavior management.
Prayer: We are not promised a life without suffering but we know that God never leaves us and hears our prayers. Teaching children to pray through all circumstances begins from the moments we tuck them into bed as toddlers at night. Eventually, they develop their own language and understand why we engage in regular interaction with God.
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4. Seek Support
God created us to be relational beings for a reason. We are image-bearers in the flesh.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God." 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
For this reason, church (local and global) should be the primary place of refuge. Sometimes, the stigma of mental illness can cause reactions of fear and shaming even within the church context. Recognize that is not indicative of the entire Christian community. Find a safe place within it.
Parents: Parenting does not come with a handbook. So much involves hands-on learning. Stress takes its toll, particularly when parenting a child who is struggling with a mental health issue. “Humans are social animals: We crave feeling supported, valued and connected.” Who can you identify as your support system? It may include both in person and online connections. Sometimes, seeking professional help may be an additional venue through which God uses other’s gifts to help.
Children/Teens: Look for opportunities for your child to build relationships. In an age of digital facilitated relationships, connections to in person friends are important. COVID restrictions impact the extent that can happen right now. However, maintaining and building healthy friendships with diverse individuals are part of God’s design for attaining wholeness.
In addition, utilize school resources for ideas for how to connect your child into community/ additional opportunities for support. Does your child’s teacher sponsor a club of interest? Can the social worker recommend community activities or even meet with your child to give them tools for social skills that will benefit their mental health? Look around for people in your circles that can play key roles in becoming whole.
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5. Devise an Action Plan
As a parent who has navigated through the thread of mental illness in our family, I recognize the necessity of developing an action plan. It is essential for endurance and to equip both parents and children with skills and hope for the future. Keep important contact information accessible.
Self Care: As parents, we must be careful to not neglect caring for ourselves. We can’t pour energy into others out of an empty cup. Here are some suggestions for self care.
Equip Kids: Back to school can be especially stressful for families. During a pandemic, extra factors make it even more challenging. Here is a checklist to give kids tools for mental health management.
Identify Resources: Know where you can turn for help and more information. This list provides resources for various mental health concerns. In addition, NAMI offers support online and locally. If your child is away at college, identify campus mental health resources for them.
Cling to God’s Promises: Scripture holds us up when circumstances seem to be spinning out of control.Two particular verses that I have found helpful are:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Psalm 139:13-14
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-10
God cares deeply about the emotional health of your family. I hope these suggestions will help to ensure that your teens are able to not only stay stable, but thrive during this difficult time
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