Children and Mental Health

Posted May 7, 2021

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, highlighting the crucial role mental health plays in overall well-being.  We now recognize that physical and mental health are interconnected. Like physical health, mental health exists on a continuum ranging from temporary challenges that need limited intervention to serious conditions that demand lifelong care. Unfortunately, misconceptions and negative stigmas surrounding mental health still exist. Experiencing mental health challenges isn’t a sign of “weakness” or “going crazy.”  We will all deal with mental health issues at some point in our lives.

Despite recent acknowledgment of the importance of adult mental well-being, many people still believe that kids are too young to be vulnerable to mental health challenges or that negative behaviors and feelings are just a phase they will outgrow.  Nurturing children’s mental, social, and emotional health is as crucial as caring for their physical well-being. It is estimated that nearly 1/5 of children have a diagnosable mental health condition. Of those, almost 2/3 receive no treatment or inadequate treatments. Children rarely outgrow such conditions.  Like neglected physical conditions, untreated mental health issues in childhood worsen and lead to serious problems in adulthood.

 All children experience bouts of sadness, fear, anxiety and aggression at some time. It is not always easy to tell what is  typical developmental behavior and what is a sign of a more serious issue. Fortunately, experts have identified some key components to help parents nurture social and emotional health and recognize potential problems in children.

Healthy social and emotional development is dependent on children receiving unconditional love and acceptance, a safe and secure environment, self-confidence and strong self-esteem, appropriate guidance and positive self-discipline, and opportunity to interact with others, i.e. playtime. The Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services focuses on four key things parents can do for their children, beginning at birth through the teen years to nurture mental health.

LOVE  Show affection, acceptance, and approval. Babies can’t be “spoiled” by attention. Teens still need to be hugged and told how loved they are.

TALK  Communicate about feelings and choices. Offer guidance. LISTEN to what they have to say.

PLAY is necessary in all stages of life. It provides a chance for kids to learn about the world, experiment with different activities, learn how to interact with others, and release stress.

READ For very young children, sharing books builds vocabulary and promotes language development. Language allows us to understand and express our own feelings and to understand others – a key component of social development. For young children, stories can help identify and label emotions. For older children and teens, books can provide a way to feel less alone, build empathy, offer examples of way to navigate challenging situations, and launch conversations about difficult issues.

Mental health specialists also suggest caregivers

Monitor Media – There is a link between increased screen time, especially social media, and depression and anxiety in children.

Be a Role Model - Be honest about your own feelings – even the negative ones. Talk through solutions and options when faced with adversity. Demonstrate problem solving and resiliency. Show you children examples of constructive ways to deal with stress like breathing, meditation, or physical activity.

Practice Self-Care – Take care of your own emotional and mental health. There is a strong connection between the mental health of primary caregivers and their children’s mental health. It isn’t selfish to take care of yourself – physically and mentally. If you are suffering, your child will suffer too.

Despite parents’ best efforts, children may still face mental health challenges. Certainly, we can’t, and shouldn’t, shelter children from all of life’s stresses and negative experiences. But how do we know when a child may need help?  Experts suggest seeking professional guidance if any of these feelings or behaviors last more than two weeks.

  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns including frequent nightmares
  • Loss of interest in people and activities they normally enjoy
  • Low energy
  • Agitation – restlessness, fidgeting, hyperactive states
  • Increased temper tantrums or emotional outbursts
  • Frequent worry, anxiety, fear, or sadness
  • Struggling in school
  • Thoughts or talk of hurting themselves or others

If your child is showing any of these signs, reach out to your pediatrician, school counselor, or contact a social service agency for help.

Resource for more information about mental health in children -

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin

Mental Health in Children - Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services

Milwaukee County Mental Health Coalition for Kids

CDC Guidelines for Children’s Mental Health

Facts for Families - American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Kids Health

Child Mind

What Every Child Needs For Good Mental Health

Mayo Clinic Mental Illness in Children: Know the Signs  

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