Health & Science

A rise in mental health problems in children has parents looking for at-home solutions

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A growing body of evidence examining the impact of the pandemic on children shows a rise in mental health problems that have parents, educators, and even some children concerned.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health problems account for a growing number of children’s visits to emergency rooms. Between March and October of 2020, there was a 31 percent increase in children 12 to 17 years old and a 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 compared with the same period in 2019. Girls were more likely to experience these emergencies, but visits increased for boys as well. Even now, children’s hospitals continue to report a “meteoric rise” in the number of kids who need support and treatment for mental health issues. They’re being seen for issues ranging from anxiety and depression, to substance abuse and eating disorders.

A crisis within a crisis

One mom recently told us the first sign of trouble was when her straight-A tween’s grades suddenly took a dive early last year, after six months of remote learning and limited social engagements. During one of the few instances when he came out of his room, he announced that he felt “depressed” and asked to see a therapist. Concerned, his mom went to work to find one that specialized in children, but few returned her calls. Those who did call back said they were swamped with few, if any, spots left in their schedule.  

The mental health crisis affecting America is not just impacting parents and children—mental health professionals are also being pushed to the brink. Many are logging a record number of hours each week, creating a crisis atop a crisis. According to CNN, some hospitals have such full psychiatric beds that they’re housing children in emergency department beds for weeks at a time.

Even in areas where mental health resources are available, some families lack health insurance and others who do are finding they have limited access to mental health services. Many families are struggling to pay bills or reeling from lost jobs, in some cases piling the pressure on children who at first glance may seem unaffected by the pandemic. 

“Students who might never have had a symptom of a mental health condition before the pandemic now have symptoms,” Jennifer Rothman, senior manager for youth and young adult services at the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, recently told the Washington Post.

What you can do at home

Many parents know their kids need help but they don’t know where to find it or what to do. Of course you should always reach out to professionals if your child needs help—but If resources are hard to find right now, there are a few things parents can try at home.

  • Try asking your child to write a story or draw a picture about how they’re feeling. Mental health professionals often use this technique with children to help them articulate their feelings. It can help peel back the layers of emotions, especially in children who are shy. Making this a regular practice is a great way for your kiddo to express themselves without having to come out and say too much—and a simple way for you to be able to check in with them. Even for children who don’t consider themselves “creative,” things like journaling, painting—anything that encourages them to create something from nothing—can help release stress. This is true whether a child is a toddler or a teen. What they come up with sometimes may speak volumes. 
  • Create an emotional check-in station. Child and adolescent psychotherapist Katie Hurley suggests coloring a picture of a thermometer to represent feelings from calm (cool) to angry (boiling). “Write a name for each family member on a sticky note and place your sticky note next to how you’re feeling. If anyone places a sticky note at the boiling point, do a quick check-in to see what might help (deep breathing, exercise, walking outside) and give them space to cool down.”
  • Establish a consistent mealtime schedule. While it’s important to feed your child a nutritious diet, it’s not just what you offer them to eat that counts, it’s when. Sitting down to enjoy meals and snacks around the same time each day helps to regulate your child’s energy and hormone levels, which can significantly affect their mood. Letting them get too hungry throws the brain’s neurotransmitters into disarray, which directly affects both how they feel and how they act. A more consistent, predictable pattern to meals and snacks can be a game-changer for some kids.
  • Take a walk together. It’s easier for some children to talk about their feelings if they don’t have to look you in the eye. It’s something mental health professionals do all the time, especially now, when being in close proximity to others for long periods is discouraged. Being outside in the fresh air, even if it’s just a stroll around the block, immediately relaxes most people, and the blood flow prompted by walking can also help boost feelings of motivation.
  • Use conversation prompts that invite children to share their feelings. Beyond the cliche, “How are you feeling?” there are open-ended questions that encourage a deeper level of thoughtfulness to answer. Try asking, “If you were to write a book or make a movie about the past year, how do you think it would end?” Another good one: “What do you like most about your life right now and what would you change?” Listen to their answers rather than form rebuttals or take mental notes, no matter how you feel about what they say. This builds trust and allows you time to digest what you’re hearing. When it’s your turn to react, try responding empathetically (“I see what you mean”) instead of providing solutions to things, and be sure to thank them for trusting you with their feelings. When children feel respected and listened to, they are more likely to open up in the future.

Reflecting on the past year, the mom whose son asked to see a therapist says she considers herself lucky that her child was willing to ask her for help. Fortunately, her son was able to get the help he needed. Not all children have the personality, maturity, or capacity to do that, especially if they’re younger or introverted, or if their families lack access to resources. 

If you’re worried your child is not getting the help they need, try asking your pediatrician, family physician, or their school counselor for assistance, or contact organizations with free resources, such as the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.