Anxiety and mental health in children
Equipping parents with resources and skills to keep their child healthy
Dealing with social or peer pressure can be a difficult challenge for kids, and the resulting anxiety can be very real. Parenting New Hampshire reached out to a pair of professionals to learn what to watch for and how to deal with these common challenges and behaviors.
Rik Cornell, vice president of Community Relations at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester. Rik has also been a therapist with the Center for 44 years.
Sandra Norton, director, Child Adolescent and Family Clinical Services at Center for Life Management in Derry.
What warning signs should I watch for that may indicate my child has anxiety or mental health issues?
Rik Cornell: “Typically, anxiety or mental health issues in children develop over time. However, any significant life change or trauma can bring issues to the forefront rather quickly. Individuals concerned about the development of mental health related issues may notice more gradual changes in the child’s mood or behavior. They may pull away from friends or stop doing activities they previously enjoyed, or the child may show a decline in academic performance. Additionally, communication can be more difficult. Children usually act out their feelings, and looking for these kinds of changes will help parents more quickly identify problems. When trauma or significant change takes place, the parents may see more depression and children repressing their feelings. Anxiety and depression are the most common illnesses people face with mental illness.
“All too often adults wait too long to seek professional help for children because of the stigma of mental illness and the desire to shield their child from it. The reality is, however, that not addressing these issues is much more damaging to the emotional well-being of the child. Early detection and intervention has proven to be the number one factor in helping people recover more quickly.”
Sandra Norton: “If you see sudden changes in their mood from being typically happy but now – not just for an hour or for one day but going on for a lengthy period of time – they seem not to be themselves. When you notice they are having an emotion and it’s intense. When it’s beyond what’s normal for your particular child. We all get angry, we all get nervous, we have similar feelings but when they’re intensified to the level where we’ve never seen it expressed this way. If you have a child who is typically compliant, able to follow rules, and you see a sudden shift to increased oppositional behavior, if they have difficulty focusing; if you get reports from school that the child is distracted or not able to get through work; if you notice unexplained weight loss or if a child is engaging in any kind of physical harm, they’re expressing physical symptoms. If you notice a change in sleep patterns or if the child is not able to sleep for many nights or if they’re sleeping excessively.”
When should I consider sending my child to counseling?
Rik Cornell: “Before you get to that point, parents should get some professional guidance in what kind of help is available and develop a plan. Then I would strongly recommend discussing this plan with the child. Mind you, I did not say to ask the child to make a decision about going; that is the parents’ job. The more comfortable the parents are with the idea of counseling, the better the child will feel about this decision. Going to counseling is never easy and surprising a child with the news, or pretending it’s only a trip to the mall, will create a very bad and difficult start to the counseling process.”
Sandra Norton: “Typically, when you see the warning signs we discussed, it could be an indicator the child needs some help outside what the parents are able to provide. Especially if there’s any kind of self-harming behaviors; the child expressing he or she doesn’t want to be alive; if the child is harming others or frequently threatening to harm others; when the child is expressing several days or weeks of being unhappy, frightened or upset; if siblings within the home are also expressing fear of the child who might be acting differently. Also if the child’s symptoms are interfering with their daily functioning, if any time all of a sudden the child isn’t able to go to school, isn’t able to follow through with the expectations of extracurricular activities. If they’re struggling in any way and if their daily life is impacted and not functioning as they were. Another time to seek help is if there are disagreements in the home with how to handle the child and it’s putting a great strain on the parents’ partnership. Family therapy or co-parenting therapy can be beneficial. Lastly, if a parent is saying to himself or herself that they don’t know what to do and they’re at a loss for how to manage.”
Should I share my child’s anxiety or mental health issues with his/her school?
Rik Cornell: “This is always a difficult decision as some people are very uncomfortable with involving the school in their problems. Given that over eight hours of a child’s day is spent in school, one could argue that including the school makes good sense, i.e., everyone will be working together to the benefit of the child. These issues are not always clear, however. The parent, child, and therapist should all come up with an agreeable working plan. Sometimes just talking with the guidance professional in the school and setting up or providing a safe place for the child to go to or talk is usually all that is needed.”
Sandra Norton: “We say yes. Parents are encouraged to use collaborative approach because this is what’s best for the child.”
What can we do at home to de-stress our children?
Rik Cornell: “TALK! Talk to your children as much as possible about their day and how they are feeling. The answer “OK” is not enough. Finding the time to really sit down and connect is not only good role modeling but it also provides a place and time where children can feel comfortable expressing feelings. I know it works because that is what therapy is, and the approach has been working for many, many years. The Mental Health Center is always willing to talk with parents about these decisions. Just dial (603) 668-4111 and connect to scheduling. Parenting a child with any form of mental illness is difficult, and we are here to help.”
Sandra Norton: “Having structure in the home is very important – structure meaning a daily routine. When they get home from school, they have a scheduled homework time, they have a scheduled dinner time and they have a scheduled bed time. Having a predictable routine for the child so the child knows what to expect and what expectations are can be helpful. Also, consider limiting the amount of extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities are great for kids, but make sure they still have time for getting homework done so that doesn’t become stressful. Kids are playing sports, rushing home and having dinner. Allow some free time for your child. Kids need playtime. As much as structure is helpful, they need that time. Playtime can be structured too.”
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