As fall approaches, the U.S. youth mental health crisis, while acknowledged by the government, has yet to show signs of significant abatement. For the third year in a row, the COVID pandemic will play a large role in the 2022-2023 back-to-school season. Plus, it’s become impossible for anyone, including children, to escape the onslaught of relentlessly depressing headlines, whether it’s climate change or widespread gun violence – which, of course, includes school shootings.
A huge factor that has contributed to kids’ mental health issues in recent years is an increased dependence on technology and social media, something that the pandemic only exacerbated.
“People in generations before us have struggled,” says Dr. Leslie Carr, a clinical psychologist and expert on how trauma, stress, culture and digital technology impact the mind. “But young people today seem to be having a particularly hard time.”
Dr. Carr explains that this is a result of a combination of things: First, kids are being exposed, at a young age, to major life upheavals like a pandemic and school shootings. Second, “they’re absorbing it via the internet all the time.” Third, by spending so much of their time on the internet, children are lacking the positive reinforcements that help counteract devastating news stories. “Time in nature, time with friends, getting hugs, playing. There’s less of that when kids are on the internet all the time,” she says.
Even though schools have returned to in-person learning, children are still experiencing the aftereffects of remote learning, which can have a substantial effect on their mental health. “[Kids’] development has been impacted in these past two years,” says Dr. Jahanara Ullah, a child psychologist and an assistant director at the Montefiore School Health Program in the Bronx, New York, which provides coordinated primary and preventive healthcare (including mental health care) to 75 local public schools. “Now they find themselves back in school trying to adjust and shifting from social media, which might have been their only connection during the pandemic, to in-person interaction, and struggling to have healthy relationships.”
Dr. Ullah goes on to say that after nearly three years of living in a pandemic, some kids are still learning how to talk to people again. So as families prepare for the new school year, it continues to be important for parents and caregivers to know how to be their children’s mental health support system.
Do Listen, Don’t Always Problem-Solve
So, how can parents and caregivers open the lines of communication? “Get your kids talking,” says Dr. Carr, before emphasizing, “let your kid have their feelings.” Also, engage in a technique called active listening, where the focus is more on listening than problem-solving.
“It’s important to open up that discussion by letting your child know, ‘I’m here for you, I want to understand what’s going on with you,’” says Dr. Ullah. What can be the most challenging part of this experience for parents is the natural instinct to try to make the child feel better, like taking them for ice cream. Dr. Carr cautions against this practice, “because the feelings are not going to go away with the ice cream cone,” she says. “And what you’re going to communicate to your child is that it’s wrong to have feelings or that they shouldn’t talk to you about them.” As difficult as it may be, the best way parents can be there for their children is to have the ability to tolerate difficult emotions – in both themselves and in other people.
The two main strategies that Dr. Ullah recommends to parents when they want to engage in active listening are 1. “Being able to summarize — what has my child said to me just now? Do I fully understand it?” And 2. “Is what I’m about to say helpful? Will it address my child’s needs?” In short, make sure you, as the parent, are remaining mindful of your own feelings and reactions. And that may mean telling modeling your own self-care for the child. “If [the parent] needs to see a therapist or a counselor, they should let the child know,” says Dr. Ullah. “To break down those walls by example sets the tone so the child can talk to their parents and lets them know that it’s okay to ask for others for help too.”
Engage in Conversation
A common misstep among parents (myself included) is attempting to engage kids in conversation with a general “How was your day?” This usually results in little more than, “It was good!” Dr. Ullah recommends “more focused and open-ended questions” like “What was the best part of your day?” or “Can you give me a rundown of your schedule?” This way, your child will be prompted to share specific details. Marcella Kelson, a parenting expert who specializes in maternal mental health and developmental psychology, suggests playing the “What’s your rose, thorn and bud?” game with kids at the dinner table. The “rose” is one positive aspect of the day, the “thorn” is one negative aspect, and the “bud” is something to look forward to.
Kelson recommends making these kinds of check-ins part of the family routine, whether it’s at dinnertime, bedtime or even first thing in the morning. “I think it’s a good consistent practice at home because you don’t necessarily want the day there’s really upsetting information to be the day that you ask how your child is doing,” she says. “Because it doesn’t set them up for openness or consistency in that communication.”
A little can go a long way toward helping children feel comfortable talking with their parents and caregivers, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day doing something that the child enjoys, together: “Spending more time, positive time, taking interest in something that’s important to them, can help the child feel safe,” says Dr. Ullah.
Get Professional Help
If you’re noticing red flags in your child’s mental health — changes in behavior, mood, sleeping and eating habits, etc. — it may be time to enlist professional resources. A typical first stop on this journey is your pediatrician, but both Kelson and Dr. Carr emphasize the importance of involving school-based services as well. Even if your child’s school doesn’t have an in-house behavioral health program [like the Montefiore School Health Program, where Dr. Ullah works], the school guidance counselor is more likely have their finger on the pulse of therapy resources and solutions for accessing the care you and your child need.
“Regardless of where you get your services from, you want the school to support your child, and you’re going to still want the school to be your ally,” says Kelson.
There’s also the recently activated nationwide three-digit Lifeline, 988, which can direct parents to mental health resources via phone, text or chat.
Before you go, check out the mental health apps we swear by for a little extra TLC for your brain:
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