How is summer already over? It seems that it’s only just begun. The reality is the kids will be back to middle and high school before the last sip of summer is had. And with the new year, there are often new challenges. As many say, “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.” But mental health issues that are diagnosed and treated early have the best prognosis and do not have to become “big problems.” As our children grow into tweens and teens, there is a new landscape to understand. As parents, it is crucial to tend to your child’s mental health just as you do their physical health.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services the most common mental health disorders for our teens and tweens are anxiety (32% of 13 to18-year-olds), depression (13% of 12-17-year-olds), Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (AHHD; 9% of 13- to 18-year-olds), and eating disorders (3% of 13-18-year-olds). Making matters worse, kids who suffer from these disorders often turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. Research shows that 29% of adolescents who recently started using alcohol did so after a major depressive episode. The same pattern was found for drug use too.
Your happy elementary-aged kid will face new issues as they get older. Although mental health may not have been high on your radar as something to tend to, now is the time. And back to school is a stressful and important time for our kids. New schedules, new fears, loss of friendships, loss of summer, new pressures, more responsibility, busier schedules, changing bodies, and changing emotions to name a few. First presentations of mental health issues often happen during times of transition.
I was just talking with my friend's rising 9th grader, and she is already worrying about whether to take advanced placement classes, how to make new friends, how to stay connected to those who are going to different schools, and how to navigate a new school. My initial response was to say “It will be okay. It will all work out,” and go on with my day, but that’s about as helpful as saying “I don’t care that much.”
Instead, I sensed her worry and made a conscious decision to just sit and listen at first, and then ask questions. “Why not try the harder class first since you have done well in the past, and then move if it doesn’t work?” Well, the word on the street is that the guidance counselor is inflexible and once she signs up for classes, she might be stuck with them. And, as an almost 9th-grader, she is already thinking about college and her grades. Got it. Now it makes more sense. We chatted. I mostly created time to just be with her, listen, and reassured that she is not alone in it - either her parents or I would help, if need be. We both left feeling more connected and she less anxious.
My friend's daughter does not have diagnosable anxiety, but normal worries can evolve into clinical disorders when feelings go unaddressed. It is these moments we parents, aunts, caregivers, adults need to tune into.
What to do:
First and foremost, stay connected to your kid and keep lines of communication open. The age-appropriate behavior is to “individuate” or push your parents/caregivers away during adolescence. Try to trust that they will come back, and just let them know you are here - always. Manage your own anxiety around this. Most people (young or old) don’t want advice, they just want a trusted sounding board. Resist the urge to fix, and just listen. This is crucial for all parents and caregivers of tweens and teens.
If you are worried that your child could be suffering from a mental health issue, look for the signs below. There is no harm in seeking help from a trained professional even for just a one-time consultation.
Each illness has its own symptoms, but common signs of mental illness in adults and adolescents can include the following (From NAMI):
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
- Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
- Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
- Avoiding friends and social activities
- Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
- Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
- Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
- Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
- Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
- Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
- Thinking about suicide
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
- An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
Mental health conditions can also begin to develop in young children. Because they’re still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral. Symptoms in children may include the following:
- Changes in school performance
- Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school
- Hyperactive behavior
- Frequent nightmares
- Frequent disobedience or aggression
- Frequent temper tantrums
If you notice any of the symptoms above, here’s what you can do:
- Talk with your child’s pediatrician first
- Find local clinicians www.psychologytoday.com
- Call the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-HelpLine
- If you or someone you know is in imminent danger, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.