How to speak to children and teens about emotional health during trying times
Covid-19 has brought on new stressors and emotional strains that we’re each learning to cope with, which holds true for kids and teens. Now more than ever, it is important to check in with our kids about their emotional health.
Starting conversations about emotional wellness can be a bit awkward and maybe stressful, but do it enough times and it starts to feel natural. “Right now is a crucial time to either develop or reinforce the practice of connecting with the youth in our lives. We want to let them know that we are genuinely interested in hearing about their perspective and experience,” says Han Liang, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente Northwest. The good news is that just one positive, nurturing relationship with an adult can help kids fight the effects of trauma. (1)
So if there’s a child or teen in your life, now’s the time to start a conversation. You can start making a difference in a young person’s mental health in three key ways: Take care. Talk often. Act early.
We know that half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14. (2) This makes childhood and adolescence a pivotal time to develop healthy coping skills that support resilience. Dr. Liang says, “A good place to start is to take stock of the routines and rhythms of the day. Adjust schedules to focus intent on regular sleep, nutrition, exercise, and safe social interactions, which serve as the foundation of physical and emotional health.”
Exercise, especially, has health benefits beyond physical fitness. In fact, as little as 20 to 25 minutes of moderate activity a day has been shown to help protect against symptoms of depression. (3) In addition to physical exercise, other ideas might include:
- Bolster creativity: What about a DIY art project or a creative upcycling craft?
- Support connectivity: We can socialize with peers virtually and follow safe physical guidelines.
- Practice self-care: How about a relaxing bath or listening to favorite music?
Anyone can visit kp.org/selfcare to explore a range of no-cost self-care resources, including audio activities, articles, and more.
Days can be hectic, as we deal with hundreds of distractions. Try blocking out a bit of time and choosing a safe space to have a meaningful conversation. As we all remember being teenagers at some point, we might also remember how easy it was for us to “shut down” when an adult started a conversation with “When I was your age....” Instead, Dr. Liang recommends that we avoid this pitfall by prepping with these three steps:
- Acknowledge that there is a lot going on in the world.
- Let them know that right now, you want to focus on them and find out “what’s most important to you right now.”
- Listen intently and appreciate what they’ve shared.
Children of all ages can experience mental health conditions. In fact, the median age for when anxiety disorders begin is 6; it’s age 11 for behavior disorders and age 13 for mood disorders like depression. (4)
These conditions are treatable, and possibly preventable, with early care and support from trusted adults in these children’s lives. And the sooner you familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of depression, the better prepared you’ll be as a listener.
If you ever fear for the immediate safety of a young person, call your local medical office and ask to speak with a crisis provider. Another recommended source for young people in crisis is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
Learn more ways to talk with kids about mental health by visiting FindYourWords.org, a resource provided by Kaiser Permanente.
1 Nicole Spector, “How to Talk to Your Kids About Their Mental Health,” NBC News, May 20, 2019.
2 “Mental Health Facts: Children & Teens,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, accessed May 27, 2020.
3 Felipe B. Schuch, PhD, et al., “Physical Activity and Incident Depression: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies,” The American Journal of Psychiatry, April 25, 2018.
4 Kathleen R. Merikangas, PhD, et al., “Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders in US Adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A),” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, July 31, 2010.
5 “Find your words: How to talk about mental health with a child,” Kaiser Permanente Thrive Together, April 16, 2020.