Last October, a seventh-grade student at Sparks Middle School in Nevada shot and killed a teacher and wounded two other students. His final shot was aimed at his own head. Later, it was reported that the shooter may have been bullied, just a guess to his motivation.
The reaction to school shootings runs along the same lines: arm security guards and teachers, install metal detectors and give kids bulletproof backpacks. While teachers take self-defense and combat classes and students add anti-bullying assemblies to their schedules, it’s rare for anyone to address mental health awareness among teachers, students and, especially, parents.
There is still a stigma around children receiving mental health services. It’s not uncommon for adults to think kids don’t have real problems or mental health does not exist for children. Kids are resilient. My kid’s fine. Children can struggle emotionally and while it usually doesn’t lead to violence, they still are experiencing pain that can affect their long-term well-being.
ADHD, eating disorders, bullying, depression, anxiety and learning issues frequently make the news and talk show circuit. Yet there isn’t a solid understanding of the mental health needs of adolescents. If your child has a chronic cough, you go to your pediatrician. Yet there is a fear that if a child expresses an emotional issue, you are a bad parent or a diagnosis will compromise your child’s future. Do not add to the stigma of receiving mental health care. Instead, feel empowered as a parent to help your child – whether they have a physical or mental ailment.
So What Is Mental Health?
Mental health refers to the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of a person, encompassing overall well-being. Mental health is no different for adolescents than adults. While young children are focused on handling the demands of social and academic endeavors, teenagers work on developing a personal identity and forming relationships with others. Each of the developmental challenges that arise has the potential to lead to difficulties in school and in after-school activities, such as sports or playing an instrument.
Children want to feel connected to parents, teachers and peers, seeking praise and approval. Rejection, such as bullying, can open a door to social, emotional, and psychological distress. Mental health issues (depression, anxiety, withdrawal, anger, irritability, mood instability) can affect how children feel and think and even impact their abilities in school.
Teens are trying to discover who they are outside of the family unit and strive for personal growth, which makes them especially sensitive to their peers acceptance or rejection. Peers become so important, in fact, that other aspects of teens’ lives tend to take a back seat. Mental health issues in teens can affect how they make decisions and relate to others, sometimes leading to involvement in risk-taking activities, substance use/abuse, behavioral problems, eating disturbances, sleep disturbances and sexually acting out/inappropriate behaviors.
Why Mental Health Is Important for Children
Researchers estimate that 15%-20% of children and adolescents suffer from some form of mental disorder. Not all distress will lead to a mental disorder. Some children may experience short-term distress that may have a negative impact on their mental health.
The idea that children are resilient is only half true. For children with a sense of emotional well-being from years of receiving love from trusted caregivers can often cope effectively with life’s difficulties. Children who for any number of reasons are missing that feeling of safety are not as resilient. Encouraging children to share their day, communicate their emotions, and make good decisions with you are some of the keys to creating healthier emotional well-being. A child who has developed good mental health can experience and express feelings, form secure relationships and explore her environment.
Some children may be more prone to experience problems. Risk factors include long-term physical illness, a parent who has mental health problems or substance abuse problems, parental divorce or separation or educational difficulties. Situational problems, such as a death of someone close to them, can also lead to children experiencing short-term mental distress.
Infants and toddlers tend to demonstrate distress by food refusal, increased crying, difficulty sleeping or regressing to earlier behaviors. School-aged children tend to externalize their behavior, which may appear in the form of temper tantrums, yelling or hitting. Older children and younger adolescents may internalize their behavior, which may appear as avoiding others, negative self-talk, or a decline in academic performance.
Children can experience problems, as adults do, that can become serious enough and they may need professional assistance. Without treatment, many children with behavioral problems can face delinquency or drop-out issues.
Helping Your Child
Depending on your child’s needs, there are a number of ways to help. Let’s begin with the classic behavior problem in school and/or at home. A teacher or caregiver tells you your child is acting out. What is the cause of your child’s behavior? It can be related to many factors, such as a recent stressor (a move, loss in the family, separation of the parental unit, bullying or difficulties in school). Often, the answers can best be learned through a comprehensive psychological evaluation, counseling services or a consultation.
Evaluations may examine several aspects of your child, including intellectual level and social, emotional and behavioral functioning. Then a plan can be established for you to learn how best to help your child. Therapy may be one option, which may not only help your child learn coping mechanisms but can also improve your child’s self-esteem and communication skills. For younger children, play therapy, where toys and games are used to help children to express themselves, is an option. With teens, traditional talk therapy may suffice. In some cases, your child’s pediatrician may refer you to a psychiatrist, who may prescribe medication.
Remember, help can come in many forms, including you, a teacher, friend, counselor, spiritual or religious leader, coach or mentor. Increased social support is critical for children experiencing mental health difficulties. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help for your child if necessary. They are counting on you.
Nekeshia Hammond is a licensed psychologist, and founder of Hammond Psychology & Associates, PA in Brandon. Gina Galiano and Krista Kovatch are doctoral students in the Florida School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. Go to www.hammondpsychology.com to learn more.