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Six Steps to Safeguarding your Child’s Mental Health

October 7, 2021     By Julie Almquist, MS, LIMHP, Clinical Therapist and Manager, Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health

Mental Health, Understanding Behavior

Is there a Brad in your family?

Brad is a typical junior high kid who just wants to fit in and not stand out for looking or acting different. Looking different at his school means wearing a mask. Most kids don't mask up and certainly not Brad's buddies. He wishes his friends would wear them, then he'd wear one too. But they don't, so he doesn't, which makes him more withdrawn, quiet and a bit angry… mostly at himself.  

Or maybe you have a Brittni?

She's always had an anxious disposition. Since school started, however, it's become even more exaggerated. Her social media diet is filled with viral videos and memes about mutating viruses and “scary" vaccines. The truth and accuracy of much of her online consumption is questionable. Some of it is downright crazy and cringeworthy. But she keeps scrolling and her mind keeps racing. 

If you have a Brad, a Brittni or some version of both in your family, you're not alone.

A recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association shows that a majority of adults who have children in their household are worried about the mental state of their kids. And nearly half say the pandemic has caused mental health issues for one or more of their children. So, what's a parent to do?

To begin with, don't automatically assume your kids are struggling. They may not be, especially if little has changed in the way they act, think or feel.    

If your kids are performing well in school, active and engaged in activities, sleeping and eating well, and not intensely moody or having reactions bigger than the situation, those are great indications they're coping and not overwhelmed with stress or anxiety. But if you have noticed struggles at home, in school and with friends, check in and engage in calm conversation.

In a non-judgmental way, talk about the changes you've seen. As parents, it's important we foster open and honest communication, really listen to what our kids tell us and respect their feelings, not judge or shame them. Perhaps most importantly, we need to empower our kids with the skills and tools they need to strengthen and safeguard their mental health.  

Here are six actions you can encourage your children to take right now to help alleviate their pandemic-related fears, worries and anxieties:     

  1. Let go of what cannot be controlled.
    How long the pandemic continues or whether others are following safety guidelines are outside of any child's control. So worrying about such things is a waste of energy and leads nowhere. Instead, redirect attention toward the things your child can control – staying fit by eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and being kind to others. Kids who have a sense of control in life have more focus and optimism, and experience less stress.

  2. Be okay with not feeling okay.
    There is no shame in feeling a certain way, whether it's sad, angry or frustrated. Not every negative or uncomfortable feeling is a “problem" that needs to be fixed. Learning to accept and process negative emotions in healthy ways is what matters. Bouncing back from life's challenges is easier when kids have healthy coping skills. Help your children build their own coping skills toolbox and include these 99 excellent ideas for managing stress.   

  3. Seek out “awe" moments.
    Experiencing moments of awe can reduce anxiety and increase happiness by changing our perspective and making us more hopeful and connected to the world around us. Whether it's a spider's intricate web or a starry night sky or the rhythmic call of a songbird, there are many sites, sounds and situations that have the power to boost our mood if we let ourselves notice and experience them. Your children can find awe moments anywhere – in nature, in a book or  even in the basement. 

  4. Take self-care seriously​
    A healthy, active body supports a healthy mind. Having and maintaining healthy routines, including eating balanced meals, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and maintaining connections with the people important to us strengthens the body, mind and spirit.   

  5. Stop doom scrolling. Start joy scrolling.
    Obsessively scrolling through social media looking for bad news or stories that validate our anger or negative feelings just keeps us more fearful, anxious and sad. Instead, look for stories and images that are inspiring, upbeat and joyful. Even better, step away from social media. Time is much better spent practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques that calm the mind.   

  6. Find your anchors.
    Identify a support network – the people your kids can turn to for help and encouragement when stress and self-doubt bubble to the surface. Authentically expressing their feelings to a grandparent, teacher, school counselor, spiritual adviser or other trusted ally can renew their hope and optimism. Sometimes they just need to hear, “You got this!" And when they don't feel like talking, journaling activities like this one can be an effective emotional release​.

By taking these steps, every child can lighten their stress, relieve their tension and find much-needed relief. But if the emotional toll of the pandemic still weighs heavily on a loved one, please call the Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000 or text VOICE to 20121. Trained counselors will provide whatever support, resources or referrals your family needs.

In support of World Mental Health Day, please share this content so other families know they're not alone and achieving better mental health is possible!​

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