When Children Struggle with Mental Health: Encouragement for Parents

Mother smiling and comforting her daughter.

Many families in the U.S. have a loved one in the home struggling with mental illness; that loved one is often a child. The COVID-19 pandemic blindsided families, intensifying any mental health concerns already present. While students have returned to “normal” school days, many of the students are not back to normal. Teachers still report that student behavior has regressed and that anxiety and depression are markedly higher. Teachers are not the only ones concerned—a 2023 Pew Research Center survey revealed that 40% of parents in the U.S. are “extremely” or “very” worried about anxiety or depression becoming a serious struggle for their children at some point. It could take years to regain the socioemotional momentum that was lost, and many parents are wondering what to do. For starters, parents may be asking:

What does good mental health look like for children?

Here are some signposts adults can look for when assessing if a child is doing okay. According to experts at RaisingChildren.net.au, “[Younger] children with good mental health feel loved, safe and secure in their environments. They also feel happy and positive about themselves most of the time. They’re kind to themselves during tough times or when things don’t go the way they expect…and [are willing to try] new or challenging things.” They learn proficiently, get along well with family and friends, are able to manage feelings of sadness, worry, or anger, and bounce back from difficult moments.” 

Three big indicators: Curiosity, Persistence, and Self-Control

For a narrowed list to look for, a recent study examined the most common behaviors parents consistently observe, that have become indicators of positive mental health in children at different stages of development. 

  • Curiosity. The predominant positive mental health indicator among children between the ages of 3-17 was curiosity – the capacity to let down one’s guard and allow wonder and exploration to drive the pursuit of understanding. Parents can look for and feed curiosity in their kids by showing curiosity in them and modeling curiosity for new things, asking “I wonder…” questions together.
  • Persistence and Self-Control. Between the ages of 6 and 17, persistence and self-control were also frequently reported indicators of positive mental health. This makes sense: both traits imply some level of mindfulness that one’s own actions can make a difference in challenges and outcomes. Parents can nurture persistence by pointing out small, hard-earned progress when their kids are doing hard things, and encouraging them to focus on the objective and their ability to reach it. Self-control can be fostered through delayed gratification, or even with games and activities.

How can parents help a child or teen whose mental health is not thriving?

While there are no easy answers, people who have been through the same challenges can give real insight to family members with a loved one whose mental health needs to heal. Here is a video with some simple encouragement for parents from the perspective of teens who’ve struggled with their own mental health. Key takeaways for parents trying to help their kids are:

  1. Approach them with kindness and compassion. Talk about concerns, and listen. Threats and harsh words will exacerbate anxiety and make it harder for them to listen and engage.
  2. Recognize that seeking help is a sign of care, not a sign of failure. Some challenges are too big for parents to address on their own. Parents cannot be expected to have all the answers. A diagnosis gives the challenge a name and a path forward.
  3. Help them take ownership of their mental health decisions. No intervention will be effective until they are willing to own their part of their recovery. Help them recognize their contribution to their own healing and explore information about their specific mental health challenges, what options they have, and how long the process may take.

Navigating the challenges of mental health can seem overwhelming, especially when it comes to our children. However, the good news is that there are clear signposts and actionable strategies for parents to understand and support their kids. Keep an eye out for positive traits like curiosity, persistence, and self-control; these are not just markers of good mental health, but also qualities that can be nurtured for a lifetime of resilience. And remember, seeking professional help is an act of love and strength, a pathway to empowering your child to flourish. With compassion, awareness, and the right tools, we can all contribute to building a more resilient, mentally healthy future for our children. Let’s embrace the journey with hope and confidence.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting.

About the Author

MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging.

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