May 1-8 is Children’s Mental Health Week. Children’s Mental Health Week serves as a good reminder to stop and take stock of our children’s mental health and to start to prioritize it. And now, during a Global Pandemic, this is even more important. As adults feel the toll of this situation on our own mental health, we’d do well to assume that our children are being affected
One in five Ontario children has been diagnosed with a Mental Health Disorder and less than one third of those children have had contact with a Mental Health Care Provider. This statistic is heartbreaking, especially given how treatable Mental Health Disorders are.
I believe there many reasons that we are failing to recognize and meet the Mental Health needs of our children, though I only discuss a couple of them here.
First, we’ve lost touch with what is normal. Because Mental Health concerns are so common, we can usually see our child’s emotional or behavioural struggles in other kids, so we start to think it’s normal. But common is not the same thing as normal. Now many of our children’s puzzling or difficult behaviours actually are totally developmentally appropriate and normal. This is where it gets so confusing! In fact, to complicate things further, the way that parents often respond to behaviours that are developmentally appropriate can contribute to emotional and behavioural problems in children.
Quite a conundrum. If your head is spinning, rest assured that at the end of this article I will talk about what to look for and how you can help.
Another reason parents don’t reach out for help is stigma. The battle against the stigma of Mental Health Problems is not over. The more we keep having these conversations, the further we’ll get. This is one of the reasons that I offer groups to parents. I like parents to see that they are not alone and that it’s ok to talk openly about struggles in parenting and the struggles of your children. One of the things that we need to get clear on before the stigma will lift, is that Mental Health Disorders are not caused by parents.
Let me repeat: You are not to blame for your child’s Mental Health struggles.
Are there things parents can do to help prevent or lessen Mental
Health Problems in their kids? Yes.
Are there things parents can do to help their kids heal from or at least manage Mental Health concerns? Yes.
Is it your fault that your child is struggling? NO!
Is it your fault if YOU are struggling? NO!
Just because you are a big part of the solution, does not mean that you are causing the problem. In fact research has shown that there are several determinants of Mental Health, some that can be shifted, some that can’t. So we shift the ones we can. And that is why how you parent is so important.
So how do we know when to seek help? Well, first, if your child has a diagnosis (including ADHD) and has not had any treatment, it is advisable to connect with a Mental Health professional. If your child does not have a diagnosis but you feel they are struggling, it’s a great idea to reach out to a Mental Health professional for a consultation to see if they think that
supports are necessary, sort of like a Mental Health Check up.
Early intervention is extremely helpful with Mental Health and Mental Well-Being, especially in developing children. Research has shown that waiting for treatment takes a toll on the Mental Health of the child, and on family functioning.
Signs that your child is struggling include:
Persistent sadness — two or more weeks
Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions (current conditions notwithstanding) Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself
Talking about death or suicide
Outbursts or extreme irritability
Out-of-control behavior that can be harmful
Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality
Changes in eating habits, Loss of weight, Difficulty sleeping
Frequent headaches or stomachaches
There are many things parents can do to help support Mental Wellness in their children.
Here are some suggestions:
Look after the physical health of everyone in the family: Good Sleep, Exercise, Good Nutrition
Look after your own Mental Health and Relationships
Welcome all emotions with support and unconditional love (that can be a hard one, I know)
Set and hold limits with patience and empathy (another tough one!)
Seek out support when you need it and do the same for your kids
If you would like to help advocate for better support for Children’s Mental Health, please visit https://www.cmho.org/stay-informed to join Children’s Mental Health Ontario’s “Kids Can’t Wait” Movement and wear green during the week of May 1-8.
Julia Swaigen MSW, RSW is the Founder and Director of Attuned Families in Toronto.