By Dr. Lauren Starnes, Chief Academic Officer at The Goddard School
Prior to the pandemic, the National Survey of Children’s Health showed that 1-in-6 U.S. children had a treatable mental health disorder. Today, the mental health crisis among children has only worsened. In the first half of 2021, the Children’s Hospital Association reported cases of self-injury and suicide in children ages 5-17 at a 45% higher rate than during the same period in 2019.
While awareness around mental health, especially among children, has become more widely recognized in recent years, many parents still do not know what signs to look for in their children. For parents – particularly new parents – it is not always clear whether certain behaviors are tied to normal phases of development or something more serious.
A great place to start is by paying attention. Keep an eye out for the following behaviors, as they could be a sign that your child is struggling with their mental health. These are important things to look for in children ages 3-12:
Persistent changes in sleep patterns or appetites
Behavioral changes that seem out of character, especially discouragement that lingers or motivation that seems to disappear for longer and longer stretches
A repeated increase in aggression
Frequent tearfulness, especially when unprovoked
Supporting Children’s Mental Health
If the behaviors are temporary or just beginning, parents can do their part to support their child by incorporating some of the following tips into their daily routine. Every child is unique, so consider these a starting point. Always contact your pediatrician if behaviors persist or get more serious.
Acknowledge the situation. When your child is experiencing feelings of stress or frustration, it’s important not to minimize the situation. Take your child’s feelings seriously and remember that what may seem silly to an adult can feel like the end of the world for a kid.
Be vulnerable and relate. Talk openly with your child about a (child-appropriate) time you have been overwhelmed. Explain to your child how you cope with stressful or anxious situations. This could be done by sitting down together and describing your own emotions, which can empower your child to feel comfortable doing the same.
Incorporate exercise. Children often need to release their built-up energy, so consider the benefits of physical activity in dealing with strong emotions. Some simple activities that help with aggressive and anxious behaviors include stomping your feet, dancing to music, or jumping up and down.
Keep your routine consistent. Your child’s schedule plays a big role in regulating emotions. Try to maintain predictable routines for eating, bedtime, activities, and more. This helps children anticipate their day, which can contribute to feelings of comfort and control. Regular bedtime rituals can also support improving sleep patterns.
Find time for fun. Although screentime has its benefits, try to make time with your child to partake in fun activities together. Take advantage of the warmer weather by planning some outdoor fun with your child, like water play, nature walks, and outdoor chalk art. You can further foster your child’s imagination by creating a new game to play together. Outdoor play also builds and promotes children’s confidence, resilience, and executive function skills.
Partner with school. It’s important to partner with your child’s school to ensure a close home-to-school connection, so consider talking with your child’s teachers to gain another perspective. Ask your child’s teacher about how they are interacting with peers, any emotion regulation challenges your child is having, and any other observations your child’s teacher has made.
Read with your child. Books are a wonderful way to help children understand their feelings and then convey them to you. Here are a few classics from The Goddard School’s Life Lesson Library that can be particularly useful when helping young children learn about mental health and their emotions:
~ The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
~ Calm-Down Time by Elizabeth Verdick
~ Even Superheroes Have Bad Days by Shelly Becker
Big emotions are scary, and children need to know that their parents or caregivers are in control and can help them manage any situation. While these emotions can be difficult to navigate, these tips can help reassure your child that you are by their side to help them face their struggles.
“Using emotional vocabulary takes time and practice. The more children can verbally express how they are feeling, the less likely they are to have tantrums, meltdowns, act out, or internalize.” Big Conversations with Little Children: Addressing Questions, Worries, and Fears (Dr. Lauren Starnes, 2022)
Dr. Lauren Starnes is an expert in early childhood education. She serves as senior vice president and chief academic officer at Goddard Systems, Inc. (GSI), franchisor of The Goddard School. Dr. Starnes has completed dual doctoral programs in Child Development and in Educational Leadership from North Carolina State University and Liberty University, respectively; Masters in Child Development from North Carolina State University; and Bachelors in Psychology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.