By Lana Turnbull
As I researched an article on children and mental health for this issue, I learned how easy it is to miss the signs that a child is struggling with an emotional problem or a mental illness, and how often that means they don’t get the help they need.
We’re all so busy. From the time the morning alarm goes off, there’s breakfast to get ready, lunches to be made, backpacks to gather. As parents we are constantly asking – is everybody dressed (hopefully appropriately without required last minute wardrobe changes), are teeth and hair brushed, is all the homework ready to turn in? And then the bus comes or the carpool ride arrives and everyone is off to meet the day.
After school we question again. How was school? Have you done your homework? When is your book report due? Do you need any supplies? What do you want for dinner? I can almost hear the echoes of the same questions ringing throughout the neighborhoods, cities and towns all across the country. (And these are the parents who have time to ask – who don’t have to work two or three jobs just to get by – or who aren’t struggling with their own emotional or substance abuse problems that prevent them from being fully present to listen to and address their children’s needs.)
I started thinking about the questions we most frequently ask our kids and how seldom they really deal with how they feel emotionally. Even if we did ask the right questions, are we listening to the answers? Violence at school, on the streets and even in the home tells us that something is missing and all too often we’re letting our kids down.
The good news is that there are lots of resources that can help us as parents learn the right questions and know warning signs to watch for that might indicate when a child is in trouble emotionally. First we must be alert. Watch for changes in behavior, mood and sleeping and eating patterns. Instead of asking “how was your day?’ ask your child to tell you about his or her day and really listen. Is there anger in the answers? Is there fear? Do they seem anxious and nervous? Do they seem sad, lonely or helpless?
Mental health, like physical health, takes effort and the right “nourishment” to flourish. If only it were as simple as asking where it hurts. But it’s not. Mental health can’t be managed with an annual physical, or regular dental checkup. It takes insight and nuance and being more in touch with how our children are feeling. To get there we might have to practice some basic steps. It reminds me of what we were taught in school about what to do before crossing the street: STOP… LOOK… and LISTEN. Maybe that’s how we can start being more attuned to our children’s emotional needs.
STOP and take time to be present with them when we are together and give them our undivided attention.
LOOK for signs they are struggling emotionally. Know the symptoms to watch for and get help.
LISTEN to what our children tell us in words and in behavior that could indicate they need help.
Don’t be afraid to reach out and get the help your child needs. Like any journey, the path to mental health starts with a single step.
For more information about children and mental health visit the website of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry www.aacap.org and the American Psychiatric Association www.psychiatry.org/children.