Tell the children: It’s okay not to feel well


Editor’s note: The fatal shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas on May 24 was evolving as the print version of the May 26 News-Gazette went to press. We received it as part of National Mental Health Awareness Month in May. Even though it’s June and the school is closed for the summer, there are good points here to discuss with children who are worried about current events.

From economic instability to home isolation, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on America’s collective mental health. But for children and young adults, a steady rise in mental illnesses like anxiety and depression has been going on for much longer. Currently, more than one in five children under the age of 15 are estimated to have a mental health condition that affects their ability to function.

Talking about mental health in children can be scary. If you are caring for a child living with trauma, you may know that helping them heal is just as difficult. It’s no exaggeration to say that supporting emotional and mental health at a young age is just as essential as making sure children have regular checkups with doctors and dentists. In a landmark 1997 study, Kaiser and CDC researchers found that the more “adverse childhood experiences” (or ACES) a child has had, the higher their risk of illness and injury later in life. life.

But there is good news. New research has found that children exposed to positive childhood experiences – caring teachers, predictable and safe home environments, positive friendships and opportunities for fun – can counteract the effect of ACEs on children’s health. adults.

Whether you are a parent, loved one, teacher or caregiver, you can help create this positive environment for the young people in your life by adopting a few simple habits:

Change the way you listen. When children feel great emotions, they don’t always have the words to express what they feel. Instead, you may see the symptoms before the cause: outbursts of bad behavior, lack of concentration in class, nightmares, changes in appetite, or even self-isolation. Try to “listen” to what these non-verbal actions are actually trying to convey.

What is the real trigger, or root cause, of their emotions? Do they face conflicts at home or at school? Adapt to a new environment? Coping with the loss of a loved one? Or the healing of past abuse or trauma? Even something as “normal” as puberty and teenage hormones can be emotionally stressful.

Of course, there should be consequences for bad behavior, but that’s not the same as punishing a child for feeling bad. Remember that you are your child’s model of patience, empathy and honesty. So be sure to practice these qualities when talking to him. Above all, listen to your child’s voice and let them be part of the solution.

Teach (and practice) emotional awareness. A child who feels “bad” may not know if he is angry, scared, sad, tense, frustrated or disappointed. They may also not be able to distinguish between feelings (such as sadness or fear); sensations (such as fatigue or hunger); thoughts (like “I’m not good enough” or “I’m always doing stupid things”); and actions (such as shouting, hitting or crying).

That’s why it’s adults’ job to help them learn the words and skills they need to share, understand and manage their emotions. Practice calming techniques on the spot, such as counting to ten or taking deep breaths; or encourage activities (such as art, sports, gardening, or journaling) that build empathy and emotional control. As with all good behavior, try to “catch them doing good” and give them lots of praise when they do.

Cultivate happiness. It is natural to focus on the difficulties associated with mental health, but it is equally important to recognize the good and positive emotions. By learning to cultivate happiness, children can create an emotional ground that makes them more resilient to short-term setbacks and helps them find their own sense of purpose and joy throughout life.

Helping a loved one manage their mental health issues can be a big responsibility, but you shouldn’t carry it alone. Talking to your child’s pediatrician about his or her mental health, and asking for a referral to a trained therapist, counselor or psychiatrist if needed, is more than “ok” – it’s the right thing to do.

Dr. Corrie Kindyl, PhD, is a licensed mental health counselor, CEO of the Central Florida Community Counseling Center, and board member of Embrace Families Community Based Care.


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