“One of the most important things that parents can do is listen to their children.”
When it comes to your child’s mental health, “listen,” says Roper St. Francis Healthcare’s Dr. Maggie Wilkes.
In an age of increased social media use, decreased face-to-face interactions, lengthy to-do lists, and less family time, our children’s mental health is sometimes overlooked.
We spoke with Dr. Wilkes, a psychiatrist at Roper St. Francis Healthcare, to provide valuable insight and helpful information for parents navigating life with teens and tweens.
Raising Tweens & Teens Today
There’s no denying the world we grew up in was simpler than the one we are raising our children in today. They have access to everything they want when they want it. They can message, video chat, like, comment, and share with anyone in a matter of seconds. Dr. Wilkes said, “We have seen a large increase in both the number of children seeking treatment for depression and anxiety as well as the acuity/severity of children when they are presenting for treatment.” Additionally, “The number of children presenting to the emergency room with psychiatric complaints has increased significantly.”
She went on to say Roper St. Francis Healthcare is seeing children victimized by online bullying and “social anxiety regarding re-integration back into the physical school environment.” It’s certainly a real problem that we need to educate ourselves on.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 17% of youth ages 6-17 experience a mental health disorder. Only 51% of these adolescents are receiving the treatment they need each year. As parents, it is our responsibility to not only check on our children but also to advocate for their health and well-being.
What Should Parents Look for?
A part of being an advocate for our children’s mental health involves proactively watching for warning signs. The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists several signs of mental illness that everyone should be aware of.
- Excessive worry, fear or sadness
- Problems concentrating or learning
- Extreme mood changes
- Avoiding friends and social activities
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Changes in eating habits
- Multiple physical ailments such as headaches, stomach aches, or general aches and pains
What Parents Can Do if Their Tween or Teen is Struggling
Dr. Wilkes encourages all parents to check in with their children about their emotions. Ask how your child is doing on a regular basis. If they answer with feelings of sadness or even fear, be sure to follow up in a few days to see if those feelings are continuing or worsening. Opening the dialogue about emotions (and modeling this behavior by talking about your own), is a great tool for parents. Discussing a stressful part of your day and talking through your emotions is a great way to teach your child to process their own emotions.
If you feel that your child is exhibiting low self-esteem or self-confidence, Dr. Wilkes has a few suggestions to steer your child in the right direction.
- Encourage positive self-talk by modeling positive self-talk.
- Encourage your child to volunteer. Helping other people is a confidence booster.
- Reengage your child in extracurricular and prosocial activities.
The Influence of Social Media
Speaking of decreased self-esteem, social media has been introduced at younger and younger ages, and many studies have been conducted showing how harmful social media is to a child’s mental health. Dr. Wilkes added that social media can worsen feelings of “exclusion and ostracism.” To combat this, parents need to closely monitor their child’s social media use. “In general, particularly with young children, I recommend that parents have passwords to all social media accounts and allow access to social media only while being directly monitored,” she says. This may be another instance where setting limits for ourselves and modeling appropriate social media use can benefit your child.
While raising tweens and teens today looks a lot different than it is used to with the addition of social media and even the influence of a worldwide pandemic, there are things we can do as parents to be mindful of our children’s mental health. Recognizing the signs that they are struggling and knowing the appropriate steps to help them can make a big difference. Thank you to Dr. Wilkes and Roper St. Francis Healthcare for this important information!
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