It’s check-up season, and you hear the pediatrician ask, “Is there anything we should give special attention to at today’s visit?” Your mind goes immediately to the big changes you’ve noticed in your son’s sleep habits, or to your daughter’s increasingly weepy, angry outbursts. You wonder if what you’re seeing is normal, but you also worry that it might be something more serious like depression. Should you mention these concerns?
The answer is yes. Gather your nerve, and remember that doctors are trained to discuss your child’s emotional well-being. And these days, most of us prefer to call it mental health instead of mental illness. As the mother of teenagers, I’m no different than any other parent when it comes to worrying about my children. As a physician, it’s also my job to help young patients and their parents know what’s normal and what is not.
Depending on how the numbers are crunched, mental health conditions are much more common than people think. In a year’s time, 13 percent of kids ages eight to fifteen will be diagnosed with one. Over our child’s lifetime, the estimated prevalence of serious mental disorders might be as high as 21 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That statistic means one in five children will need an adult to speak up about worrisome signs like excessive or poor sleep habits, mood swings, or intense anger outbursts. The sleepyhead son and the tearful, angry daughter could belong to any of us. They probably don’t have a mental health diagnosis. But depending on how long things have been going on, or how much day-to-day life is affected, those children might also need professional attention.
Don’t be afraid to speak up!
That’s exactly what Richmond teen Cameron Gallagher wanted us all to do. You may be aware of the SpeakUp5K this month, and the powerhouse behind the event, the Cameron Gallagher Foundation. The fundraiser was conceived by Cameron, a local teen runner who struggled with depression and anxiety until her untimely death at the finish line of a half-marathon in 2014. It was Cameron’s idea to raise money and awareness for young people struggling with mental health conditions.
In her letters seeking support for the inaugural race, Cameron imagined a world where kids weren’t embarrassed to talk about mental health, and one in which parents could find the needed support to get help for their children. She wrote:
On a personal note, I suffered through severe, extreme depression and understand what it feels like to question your existence. This 5k is not only personal for me, but I would love to help the community open their eyes and see this is not an issue we can run away from and pretend it is not there.
I know parents worry about depression when they see the emotional roller coaster that our children experience, especially in the teen years. There are lots of high highs and low lows, and these strong feelings often arise over seemingly trivial things. Feelings of melancholy or moodiness can seem excessive when you measure them against how grown-ups respond, but kids are not little adults. And their feelings can sometimes seem larger-than-life to parents.
Often, young people need more time to work out their emotional responses. When we give them that time to be sad and disappointed or anxious and worried in a big way, they do figure out how to move on. When our children are growing emotionally, their moody episodes are a kind of proving ground, and an opportunity to try a different response when things aren’t turning out as expected. Kids develop and practice healthy coping skills as they weather emotional ups and downs.
It’s hard to watch our children struggle with loss, sadness, worry, and fear, but it is part of growing emotionally, and we should be very careful not to take away opportunities to mature by pretending we can fix their sadness or erase their worries.
What is a parent to do when his child’s emotional health is normal,
but feels so out of control?
You stay around, you remain close, and you listen. Turn off the car radio. Leave the smartphone in its charger. Turn off the TV, and look at your child. Pay attention for moments when your child is looking for a sounding board. Stop by and say goodnight at bedtime. Send an encouraging text message. Ask for help with a household task to create side-by-side time. It’s not as much about doing as it is about being. Be present for your child. Try to become a mirror so your child can look in and see what you see. Send the message that you’re a great listener, and that you believe in your child’s ability to sort things out. And lastly, don’t be a fixer.
When our children master difficult situations and unpleasant emotions, they gain a real sense of accomplishment. Be patient with this process. If forward movement is not what you’re seeing as a parent, it’s absolutely time to seek help. Depression is more than feeling sad or hopeless. Anxiety disorders will steal the enjoyment that life has to offer our kids. As important as it is to know what’s normal when our children are developing their mental health, it’s more important to help our children understand this: When it comes to emotional and mental health, they should always feel 100 percent comfortable speaking up.