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How to Help Your Children Take Care of Their Mental Health

By Fraser Mental Health Professional Amber Max and Pam Dewey • children's mental health, mental health, kids mental health, mental illness, anxiety, depression, fear, sadness, • June 17, 2021

Many kids did distance learning this year, so they adjusted to a different style of school. They’ve missed out on activities like field trips, dances and sports. Other kids were in and out of school, getting sent home with potential COVID-19 exposure. They’ve missed social interactions with friends and family.

In the Twin Cities metro, children are also grappling with the murder of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. There has been a rise in gun violence, resulting in the death of young children.

The fear, anger and sadness has taken a serious toll on kids. According to MPR News, “In a recent University of Minnesota survey, sixth through 12th graders across the state said getting help with mental health was one of the biggest challenges they were facing.”

As a parent, you want to do everything you can to care for and support your children. You can’t control everything, but you can teach your kids how to respond to difficult situations and protect their mental health. Here are few ways to help your children care for their mental health.

Schedule time to socialize

Now that every Minnesotan over the age of 12 is eligible to receive a vaccine, families have more opportunities to socialize. Fostering your children’s relationships is important for their mental health. Encourage them to invite friends over regularly for a video game marathon, art-making session or an epic Nerf battle. If your kid is under 12, you could suggest an outdoor activity with friends or have them invite their “pod” of friends over.

Provide structure and consistency where you can

Children do well with structure and knowing what will happen next. While the past year made that harder, you can still develop a daily routine for your kids. Create a family calendar with all upcoming plans and activities. Plan a regular family fun activity like a movie night, or now that the weather is warm, suggest a trip to a state park, a day on the boat or a visit to their favorite fishing spot.

Help them figure out how to manage their feelings

Your kid might be stressed about an upcoming test, upset about a fight with a friend or worried about COVID-19. Fraser Mental Health Professional Amber Max suggests one way to help kids cope is by naming and labeling what they’re feeling.

“Once kids name the feeling, like saying ‘I’m nervous or overwhelmed,’ that can ground them and help them feel better,” says Max. “That then leaves space to figure out how to address those feelings.”

Your child might feel better after a hug or talking with a teacher. Maybe they can write about their feelings in a journal or work through them on an art project. Your child might also enjoy de-stressing by kicking a soccer ball around. Help your child figure out what strategies work for them, as these are important, life-long skills.  

Teach them to take a break

If your child is stressed about homework, Max says suggest they take a break. Kids often make the mistake of just trying to keep going when they’re struggling to understand.

“They’re going to end up spending more time trying to push through because their brain is no longer listening well,” says Max. “It’s much better to take a mental break. Your child’s brain can focus much better after.”

When they’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, suggest calming strategies like going for a walk, taking five deep breaths or closing their eyes for 15 seconds.

Encourage positive self-talk and resilience

When your child says something negative about themselves, it’s tempting to disagree and state the opposite is true. But you want to help them develop a healthy inner monologue and resilience. So if your child says, “I’m terrible at all sports,” try to challenge those negative thoughts and point to the facts. You could say, “Is that true? You made the team, right?” Help them realize what they’re thinking might not be true and teach them to move past this negativity.

You can also encourage this behavior by modeling positive self-talk and resilience. Teach your children to take a frustrating experience and instead of giving up, turn it into a learning opportunity. When you find yourself feeling frustrated, say, “I feel so frustrated.” Then stop, take some deep breaths and keep trying anyway.

“Kids pick up behaviors they see modeled around them,” says Max.

Pay attention to certain behaviors

It’s expected that children are experiencing increased fear and stress because of the pandemic. However, certain changes can be cause for concern. Watch kids for behavior like this:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Unable to concentrate
  • Acting more aggressive, like throwing toys or hitting
  • Change in appetite
  • Acting more clingy or withdrawn
  • Throwing intense tantrums
  • Not caring about personal hygiene
  • Change in school performance
  • Lack of interest in their favorite activities or hobbies

A teacher may also see behavior you’re missing, like not getting along with peers or changing friends, which is important to notice and watch.

“I always tell parents you don’t have to wait for it to get so bad,” says Max. “If you’re noticing changes in your child’s behavior or other causes of concern, talk to them and consider reaching out to a doctor or mental health professional. We want to help them before they’re feeling very depressed or overwhelmed with anxiety.”