Mental Health in Your Kids
By Jennifer Seawell, MD, FAAP
We often worry about our children’s physical health. Are they sick? Do they get sick too often? Are they growing well? But sometimes, it is what we can’t see that is more concerning. What about your child’s mental health? Have you checked in with them lately? How is their inner world doing?
How Was Your Day?
This is probably the most common question asked of school-aged kids each day. And if your kids are like most, especially as they get older, you will get a stock answer in response to your stock question… “Fine.” Not a super helpful or informative answer.
There is a whole lot that happens during the school day for your youngster. (As there is for you as well!) Sometimes, they’re tired too. Rehashing the entire day’s events is just too difficult. Do you REALLY want the entire day’s play-by-play? I’m pretty sure my family doesn’t want mine. So if you really want to know what’s going on in their world and get insight into their mental health, we have to rephrase our questions.
Rephrasing your questions
Instead of asking your kids how their day was, try asking details about their day.
- Did anything interesting happen at school today?
- What did you eat for lunch?
- How are your friends doing?
- Tell me something cool that happened today.
- Anything today make you REALLY mad?
- Is there anything happening with your classes or other kids that is really bothering you?
The point of these questions is to get to know your child better. What makes them tick? What stresses them out? Are there things that really spark their emotions? How do THEY think school is going?
Validate their emotions
Growing up can be hard. Emotions swirling. Most kids don’t come equipped with the tools for managing big emotions. Help them acknowledge what exactly it is that they are feeling. You don’t have to fix it. And you don’t have to agree with it. “I can see that you are really upset about this” lets them know that you understand what they are experiencing. When our kids feel heard, it helps them feel safe. And a valued member of the family.
Be a sounding board for working thru problems
Sometimes, our kids need us to be a sounding board so they can figure out where to go next. Sometimes they need us to offer suggestions. But it’s best not to jump to the conclusion that they want us to fix things. After all, part of growing up is learning to work thru your own problems. Here are some phrases to consider when having these conversations.
- What do you think you should do?
- What do you think might happen if you do that? Is that what you want?
- Do you need help thinking through other possibilities?
What if you have concerns?
If you are concerned that there is something going on with your kid, you may need to ask more pointed questions. Look for changes in diet or sleep. Avoidance of activities with friends. Avoiding the family. Or moodiness that is out of character. Let them know that you’ve noticed a recent change in their behavior and make sure they know that you are there if they need to talk.
Remember that being your child’s safe person does not magically happen during the teenage years. If you want them to talk to you as a teenager, you need to start laying the groundwork early. Don’t avoid the uncomfortable conversations when they are little. Practice being open-minded. And practice letting them vent without fixing. It will get easier with time.
Remember that looking out for your child’s mental health is not an overnight skill. Keep an open mind and heart and stay present. Great connections take time. 🙂
The Pediatric Ninja
This article is the professional opinion of its author and is not intended to take the place of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from your personal physician.