How Can Parents and Teachers Show Up for Kids With Mental Health Issues?
Mental health issues are more common in children than any other medical issues, but unfortunately, they often go unnoticed and untreated. Children with mental health issues have a higher likelihood of having academic difficulties, substance abuse issues, legal difficulties, school violence, and high dropout rates. This is why noticing the early signs of mental health problems is crucial, and parents and teachers need to know the signs and ways to help these kids overcome them. At Da Vinci Collaborative, one of our missions is to support parents and teachers to better understand how mental health issues can manifest in our young ones, and how to help. Here’s how we can show up for kids with mental health issues at home and in school.
1. Make it easier for kids to talk about how they are feeling
At home, parents should set a good example. Talk about your own feelings and how you are managing them, and encourage your child to do the same. Praise your child when they express their feelings appropriately. Listen to your child’s feelings without trying to minimize them or make them go away.
In school, kids need safe and secure surroundings. Have a place for kids to go, like a counselor’s office or a quiet section of the classroom, where they can talk freely without fear of being judged. Help children learn to name and share their feelings.
2. Teach kids skills to manage their feelings
When your child’s behavior is inappropriate, focus on the emotions that caused that behavior, and don’t scold the child. Instead, say something like: “Wow, you must be really mad if you threw that toy at your brother! Can you tell me about it?” Practice calm breathing and counting down when your child is not in distress, so that they can use these skills when they are overwhelmed with big emotions. Help children learn to cope with frustration and big emotions by teaching them how to recognize their strengths and develop a positive attitude.
At school, teach all students not only how to recognize when to ask for help, but also the skills to promote good mental health and resilience. Teach children how to move on from negative situations. Instead of expecting them to get over it, help them think of alternative explanations, and to have a growth mindset. Help children learn how to calm themselves when they get frustrated or angry with purposeful breathing.
3. Recognize when there is an issue
Look for cues in your child’s behavior that they are distraught. Narrate for your child what you see when they are getting upset or anxious. This will help them learn to identify what they are feeling, and why. Talk about characters in books or on TV shows as examples to follow. Ask our child questions about how the character may be feeling. With practice, your child’s ability to recognize what they are feeling will improve. Moreover, pay attention to any changes in your child’s sleep patterns, academic performance, or willingness to engage in social interactions.
Teachers should make time to check in with each child daily to see how they are feeling. Many schools are also beginning to screen for emotional and behavioral issues in school with a simple questionnaire, which can be useful. What’s more, teachers should be trained to identify personal strengths, as well as risk factors or emotional distress in their students.
4. Help children improve their self esteem
Incorporate mindfulness and gratitude into the daily routine at home. Help your child become self-sufficient and confident. Giving children chores and tasks also gives them a chance to feel successful and useful, and keeps their mind occupied with something practical, where they can see the result of their work. Help children problem-solve instead of fixing the problems for them.
Encourage children to have a voice in the classroom, and a sense of belonging. Teach children about empathy, sympathy and kindness and reward them when you see them in the classroom. Be genuine about compliments, don’t mislead them by telling them they’re all perfect. Not every student is the best artist, but they have certain strengths that perhaps other children don’t possess; focus on those. More specific, genuine compliments are more meaningful.
5. Give kids opportunities to connect with other children
The right social environment will help children develop social intelligence and confidence and promote a sense of safety, belonging, and security. Children need to practice skills such as sharing, cooperation, taking turns, and showing respect for others, as these skills will help them in the long run. Children also learn the value of controlling impulses and curbing aggressive behavior in a social setting. Social interaction helps kids develop the ability to empathize with others and consider different perspectives. This all leads to overall better mental health throughout their lives.
6. Get children professional help if they need it
If your child can’t cope with their feelings alone or their feelings affect how well they do, feel, or act, they may need therapy. If your child starts feeling bad about themselves, less confident, or less effective, and none of the steps we discussed so far don’t seem to help, it might be time to get a professional on board. Other signs are if they withdraw from family, friends or activities they used to enjoy, or have a significant change in sleep habits or appetite. Contact a professional if your child shows excessive worry about the future, or engages in self harm.
Teachers can refer children for therapy if they notice students who sleep throughout class, are often tearful or exhibit crying at different times throughout the day, or just seem to isolate themselves. A child who is now missing assignments and doing poorly may be a sign of needed intervention.
Students with good mental health are more successful in school, and in their adult lives. Interventions that strengthen students’ social, emotional, and decision-making skills also positively affect their academic achievement. If you think your child or your student needs to be assessed for a mental health problem, contact us at Da Vinci Collaborative, and we will get them set on a path to better mental health.
Article written by Lorna Bosak, LCSW-R