As both a mental health practitioner and a parent of two teenagers, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to zoom out and look at the big picture when a child is in distress. I know the experience of wanting to do everything you can to help them but simultaneously feeling overwhelmed and helpless. And while every situation and every family is different, I also know that it can be helpful to have a few tips and reminders for how to support a child with mental health issues.
These strategies are meant to support both you and your children. Whether they are going through a short-term challenge or experiencing more complicated mental health challenges, here are some steps to take when a child or teen in your life is struggling:
Your child’s first lessons in mental wellness come from you. Since your kids watch how you identify and respond to challenges, it’s important to use healthy coping mechanisms when you’re stressed, and let your child know about it. You don’t have to be in good mental health to do this– in fact, seeing how you cope with difficult emotions can be an extremely valuable learning moment for your child. While you don’t want to overwhelm your child or make them feel responsible for your emotions, it’s appropriate to share when something is hard for you and what you’ll do about it. For example: “It’s been a long day and I’m tired and cranky but taking the dog to the dog park always makes me feel better, so I’m going to try that right now.” This is an excellent opportunity to reduce the stigma around mental health, so your child feels comfortable talking about it.
Kids (and adults!) don’t always know where to draw the line between normal struggles and a mental health concern. It’s tricky because mental illness doesn’t always present in kids the way it does in adults. And different types of behavior can be “normal” for different kids. This can leave parents feeling lost: Is it depression? A behavioral disorder? A normal stage of development? Kids don’t know, either, and often assume the worst and that something is wrong with them as a person.
One important sign parents should watch for is a noticeable change in behavior. You might have one child who is introverted and has always loved alone time. That’s not necessarily a problem. If, however, his extroverted older brother who loves making friends suddenly holes up in his room and doesn’t want to see anyone, that warrants investigation. More than the behavior itself, it’s the deviation from their norm that indicates a potential problem.
Some changes to watch for are:
Part of the work of parenting is to actively keep the communication lines open by building trust. Children who trust that their feelings will be heard and validated are more likely to share with their parents. Children who feel they’ll be punished or dismissed are more likely to reach out to peers instead—or avoid asking for help at all.
To cultivate trust and invite openness, keep your child’s perspective in mind. Things that seem trivial to you may feel dire to your child. A fight with a friend may seem like a temporary blip to you, but can feel like a devastating rejection to your child. Show respect for the things that bother your children, even as you help them learn how to keep things in perspective.
It can be tempting to hurry our kids through painful emotions to try to minimize their discomfort (and ours). This is why many well-meaning parents rush to say, “Don’t cry,” or “Don’t be angry” when a child is upset. We don’t want to see our child in pain, but it’s important to remember that it is healthy to acknowledge and express feelings.
When your child has strong feelings, this may bring up your own feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, or worry. Get curious about your feelings so you can try to understand and learn from them, and make a conscious choice about how you want to respond. This way, you can work through your feelings and stay fully present for your child. It’s important to listen and validate their experience rather than shutting down or asking them to manage their emotions so you don’t have to manage your own.
Spending time together is key in learning how to support a child with mental health issues. This can be as simple as eating meals together, taking walks, exploring nature, helping with homework, or picking up a shared hobby. Also invest some time in getting to know your child’s friends and interests, as these are important parts of their life.
If you’re involved in your child’s day-to-day life, it’ll be easier for them to talk to you. You’ll also be more likely to notice a change in their behavior that might indicate a problem.
Life is full of challenges that create opportunities to talk about mental health. For example, if your child knows someone who is going through a difficult time—perhaps a friend with a sick grandparent or an overwhelmed teacher—you can start a discussion about what that person might be going through, and how it might affect their behavior.
Empathizing with other people’s struggles can make mental health less mysterious. It helps kids grasp that uncomfortable emotions are common and that there’s nothing wrong with them if they run into challenges, too. It’s also a good reminder that we don’t know what others are going through, so it’s important to set aside judgment and listen with compassion.
Mental illness can drive low self-esteem, leading children to question whether they’re loved and valued. It’s critically important for you to express through words and actions that you love your child no matter what, and they don’t have to hide the extent of their suffering in order to be accepted and cherished.
You can also encourage them on their journey toward healing. Treating mental health isn’t a quick fix, and they’ll experience progress and setbacks. Acknowledge how hard they’re working, celebrate the progress, and reassure them that ups and downs are normal. Remind them that even if they feel upset or hopeless right now, they won’t feel that way forever.
Physical health has a big impact on mental well-being. Healthy habits are important for every child, but they’re an even more critical part of how to help a child with mental illness. Encourage habits like:
Connectedness and a sense of belonging are crucial to children’s well-being. Young people who feel connected at home and at school are better equipped to manage stress and are less likely to struggle with mental health, violence, drugs or alcohol, and risky sex.
To facilitate these connections, younger children may need you to schedule playdates or host gatherings. If your child is struggling to make friends, brainstorm about clubs or activities that could foster friendships. Extended family, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins, can also be helpful in reminding children just how many people love them.
Since teenagers often rely on social media for connection, express interest and talk openly about their online world. Also encourage them to socialize in person with positive, supportive friends.
Parenting a child with mental illness isn’t something anyone should do alone. Reach out to a mental health professional if your child is struggling. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your employer if you have access to mental health benefits through work or reach out to your health insurance provider to see if you have behavioral health coverage.
Many companies offer mental health benefits for employees and their dependents. This makes sense—when a child struggles, it greatly impacts their parent’s productivity at work. A 2021 study found that 53 percent of parents surveyed had missed at least one day of work per month to help a child with mental health issues.
You can also see if your pediatrician, school, or local organizations offer access to mental health providers trained to treat children, or consult the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s map of children’s mental health providers by county. Many states have crisis text lines to support children with mental health issues. You may also want to explore options for telehealth treatment for your child. The demand for telehealth therapy appointments exploded during the pandemic, and it’s a convenient, effective option for children and teens.
Parenting a child with mental illness can take a toll on every area of your life. There will be times when you need support, too. Ask for help from friends and loved ones so you can take time to de-stress and re-energize. Even a quick walk or phone call can make a difference. Also consider finding a therapist, support group, or other resources that offer support for parents of children with mental illness.
If your child is struggling, reach out for help sooner rather than later. Mental health conditions can worsen over time, so early intervention is a critical part of supporting a child with mental health issues and preventing long term negative impact.
Most of all, don’t give up hope. Trained mental health providers can help your child and your family enjoy fuller, happier lives. With love, supportive actions, and outside resources, your family can begin to heal.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alethea Varra, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and vice president of clinical care for Lyra Health. She serves as the senior clinical leader for therapy programs and is responsible for driving overall clinical strategy and oversight of clinical quality and training. Alethea received a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and doctorate degree in clinical psychology from the University of Nevada, Reno. She completed her internship training at VA Puget Sound Healthcare System and a research fellowship at the Mental Illness Research and Education Center (MIRECC) in Seattle. She has over 15 years of experience in mental health and clinical operations. Her focus is on health care innovation and program development, and she is passionate about improving access to evidenced-based mental health care, especially for underserved populations.