Supporting children and teens with mental health concerns can feel like a tremendously daunting task. Nothing is quite like the sense of powerlessness that comes with watching your child struggle and not having a road map for what supporting them should look like.
There’s no question that children and teens today are facing new challenges unknown to generations past. Between new social media platforms, violence in schools and beyond, isolation due to COVID-19, political unrest, and increasing rates of suicide- to say students today have it tough is an understatement.
So what can it look like to help a child or teen who is struggling?
Here are a few simple (yet powerful) ideas for what support can look like:
In graduate school counselors learn a skill called reflecting. The idea of reflecting is that you listen intently to what the person is saying and simply reflect back what you hear. The most important aspect of this skill is not incorporating any of your own thoughts, opinions, or advice. Instead, it’s all about listening.
The goal is that the other person will receive the message, “I see you, I hear you, and I am with you in this.” Often times when we are in difficult situations, we just want to be heard and to know that someone cares.
As a parent it can be hard to not insert your own opinions, to tell your child that you know best, especially if you are sure you do. However, when we insert advice or opinions, it can sometimes feel as though the struggle is being minimized or dismissed. Listening, simply listening, can prevent against this and help your child to know that you care and are willing to take the time to really hear what they are saying.
Validate feelings, even when you don’t understand or agree.
There is a big difference between validating feelings and validating behavior.
Here’s an example: You ask your child to do something in a loud tone because your child was in another room and you wanted them to hear you. Your child reacts by yelling “No,” screaming, crying, and slamming the door. After, you address the situation with them and your child states that they feel like you are always mad at them. Knowing this is not true, you tell them that it is not true and they are wrong to feel like that and give them a consequence for their behavior. In this situation the feeling is hurt due to feeling like you are mad and the behavior is screaming, crying, and slamming the door.
Here’s the challenge- They can feel hurt because they feel like you are always mad at them regardless of if that is your intention. In addition, feeling hurt is not the problem, rather how they chose to respond in their hurt was the problem. In this situation, the idea is to validate the feeling (i.e. “I understand why you might feel hurt if you felt like I was yelling at you, that was not my intention, I apologize, it was not my intention”) and address the behavior apart from the feeling (i e. “What would a more appropriate reaction be when you are feeling that way?”)
The idea here is that you separate feelings from behavior. Feelings themselves aren’t wrong, however the behavior that comes from feelings can be unhelpful and require consequences.
Validating feelings can help children feel understood and like they matter. It is important that children have a space where they feel they can express their feelings.
Seek support for your child.
If your child is struggling with mental health concerns, utilize available resources. You do not have to do this alone. School counselors, mental health professionals, community centers, churches, crisis call centers, etc. are all in place to help. It is never too early to reach out; prevention is better than reaction. Normalize mental health care for your child. If you don’t know where to start, begin to ask around. Talking with the school counselor can be a great place to start as they can point you toward resources specifically relevant for your situation.
Seek support for yourself.
Navigating a child’s mental health can be a very distressing and overwhelming experience for you as a parent. You do not have to do it on your own. Engage your support system, give yourself permission to ask for help when you need it, and seek professional help if it feels helpful. We all go through times where we need a little more help and that’s ok!
Most of all, remember, you don’t have to do this alone!
**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).