Children are really just little people who deserve our respect and understanding – not at all unlike adults. On the flip side, though, children may not be able to express themselves in ways we understand. Therefore, when it comes to their mental health, we need to be extra diligent in recognizing any signs that may indicate something is amiss.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration created National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week to drive home the message that positive mental health is important to a child’s healthy development. And some may same it’s just as important as physical health.
Starting the Conversation
Elle Mark, Miss Minnesota and Give an Hour ambassador, was diagnosed in college with anxiety, depression and panic disorder so she knows firsthand the importance of early detection. So much so that she’s made the Campaign to Change Direction and its Healthy Habits of Emotional Well-being her official platform and visits with local schools and businesses and Boys & Girls Clubs to encourage conversations about positive mental health.
According to Elle, one of the best things adults can do is practice active listening with kids as they try to express their emotions. It’s sometimes easy to unknowingly downplay their pain because younger kids, especially, may not have an advanced vocabulary. So it’s important to recognize and acknowledge their level of pain as they express their emotions to the best of their ability.
Making sure kids have the right tools to clearly explain how they’re feeling is critical too. “The message may change slightly based on the age of the children you’re working with,” said Elle. “But they’re very receptive and love being able to take ownership of their feelings.”
Supporting Emotional Development
A telltale sign that children may be struggling emotionally can manifest itself with physical symptoms, which might be different than how adults let you know something is going on. Examples include not being hungry, having an upset tummy, not sleeping well or talking really fast and could be symptoms of anxiety or depression. Due to a limited vocabulary, often children only understand three emotions: happy, sad and angry. Helping them develop a better vocabulary to express how they’re feeling is important because they may not know how to tell adults they are feeling anxious or nervous.
Emotional development is equally as important as physical and educational development, so Elle stresses that having conversations with kids about their emotions and acknowledging those will have a long-lasting and positive impact on their mental health. Additionally, finding opportunities for kids to participate in activities they enjoy can help build self-confidence and will go a long way to supporting their emotional wellness. Sports, theatre, band, dance, book clubs, etc. are just a few ideas you can explore. Be creative and research alternatives in your community that may be available via grants or scholarships if cost is a factor.
Elle hopes the biggest takeaway for Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week is to never disregard a child’s emotions or feelings. Continuing to have conversations with youth (that includes anyone under 18) about mental health is equally important because, especially for teens, there may be something bigger at play than just moodiness or hormones.
“If they are talking about it, we need to be listening,” said Elle. “We need to acknowledge their feelings and hold their hand through the process.”