According to the CDC, up to one in five kids will experience a mental disorder each year. For couples planning to have at least two kids, it’s just about a coin flip for whether one of the kids will have a mental health concern! Obviously a big portion of kids’ mental health is genetics and it’s out of our control. But what can parents of young kids do to help their kids to be mentally healthy and happy? Dr. Jennison Salata—Pediatric Neuropsychologist, Clinical Instructor at UCLA, and PhD in Clinical Psychology—shares these suggestions from research studies and her clinical experience for preventing and handling mental health concerns.
- Take care of yourself. “If you have postpartum depression, don’t deny its existence or pretend it’s not there,” recommends Dr. Salata, “Maintaining some degree of your own personal identity and taking care of yourself has lasting implications for kids”. Research shows that kids of depressed mothers experience more anxiety and have a harder time functioning in preschool and elementary school. And they’re more likely to develop into older kids with risky behaviors like drinking and substance abuse. So try not to feel guilty about making decisions to take care of yourself—your health is important for your kids too.
- Don’t overdose on electronics. “We kind of live in an ADD world”, suggests Dr. Salata. “Some of these kids’ shows are basically just flashing colors that change every two seconds. The kids are never bored.” Even with educational electronics, there’s non-stop excitement—you touch something and something instantly happens. But if kids get used to an instant dopamine reward all-the-time, then sitting and listening to someone talk becomes really challenging. And, trying really hard at something that takes more than an instant becomes really frustrating.
- Address separation anxiety head-on. First, acknowledge your child’s genuine feelings of anxiety and recognize that your child isn’t misbehaving. Next, don’t let your anxiety make things worse. If you avoid the separation completely, it gets even scarier to kids. Instead, try to recognize your own feelings of anxiety and still do the activities that require separation. Acknowledge your child’s feelings first, calmly say “goodbye”, and explain that you’re coming back.
- Try to be real, open and honest. If your child falls and starts crying, acknowledge how the child feels rather than telling them, “You’re OK”. Of course, if they’re fine, there’s no need to scare them, by suggesting they’re hurt. You can just say something neutral, like, “Let me take a look”.
- Practice using an emotional vocabulary. A lot of kids have a hard time talking about their feelings, as though they’re embarrassed of their negative emotions. You can help them learn an emotional vocabulary by verbalizing your own emotions, with context, for example by saying, “I’m really worried about your safety when you ride your bike without a helmet.”
- Watch for red flags. First, get regular pediatrician checkups, to track progress with developmental milestones, and to test hearing and vision (which can affect developmental milestones). Beyond that, it’s normal for your child to respond to their name, to smile when others smile, to mimic parents’ or other kids’ behavior, to be able to deal with change (for example if a toy is moved) and to sit through a meal. If they don’t do these things, take note of it. If they distance themselves from others, have unexplained stomachaches, hit their heads against things repeatedly, cry easily, or seem to enjoy hurting others, these are red flags. If you see red flags or feel something may be “off”, talk to a specialist.
- See a specialist. A recent study published in the AAP Journal showed that experts missed 39% of autism diagnoses in brief clinical observations—there just wasn’t enough time during a 10-minute check for the children to show abnormal behaviors. This means if you think there’s a possibility of a serious diagnosis like autism, you should see a specialist for a comprehensive evaluation. The evaluation should include questionnaires for parents and caregivers, as well as interaction with the child.
- Let go of what you can’t control. If your child is diagnosed with a mental disorder, it’s important to know that hundreds or thousands of genetic factors, totally out of your control, played a part. Many parents respond to a diagnosis, by saying, “well no one in my family has bipolar disorder or autism”, and that may be true—it may just be that the roll of the dice in your genetic mix happened to result in the disorder—or it may be that a relative really had high functioning autism or bipolar disorder that was never diagnosed. But identifying the disorder means you can start to better support your child.
- Get early intervention. The key with any mental health concern—depression, anxiety, autism, whatever– is early intervention. Don’t deny its existence. The earlier you intervene, the more likely you are to rewire the brain for better outcomes later in life. For example, if at 18-months-old an autistic child receives speech therapy and occupational therapy, there’s a much better chance they’ll be able to be main-streamed into preschool than a child who turns 3 and still isn’t talking.
So, yes, it’s true that there are 10-year-olds out there who are cutting themselves, there are babies who are autistic, and there are mothers who are depressed. And it’s so sad. But, Dr. Salata assured me that people can always change if they want to. Parental support and early intervention help tremendously. Hopefully, you and I won’t face any of these mental health concerns with our kids, but it’s good to know what to do, just in case. I hope that if you do come face-to-face with what may be a mental health challenge, that instead of feeling paralyzed with denial, you can feel empowered—you can get help immediately and your child will likely respond more quickly because you did. Best wishes for a healthy and happy family.
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This is the second article in a mini-series on Child Psychology based on my interview with Dr. Jennison Salata. See the first article, here: 10 Tips for a Well-Behaved Kid from a Child Psychologist. You can automatically receive Mama Lovejoy articles in your Facebook newsfeed by “liking” the Mama Lovejoy Facebook page.