Michelle Shepard, MD, PhD, is a pediatrician at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

Our emotional and mental health impacts our physical health. Yet, it can be much more challenging to discuss with our children than diet and exercise. Because mental health is often stigmatized, children and adolescents may be reluctant to talk about it.

Make your home a safe place for your child to discuss their emotions by encouraging your whole family to TALK.

Tell them about your feelings

It’s important to give kids the language to communicate how they are feeling. Children learn from what they see modeled by the adults around them. Teach your kids how you deal with feeling angry, sad, upset or worried. Use simple language to state how you feel and what you are going to do about it. An example: “I am angry with you right now, so I’m going to take some deep breaths and walk away”.

Ask about their feelings

Get in the habit of asking your child about their emotions. Try not to interpret or guess what they are feeling. Ask them, then wait (they may need to time to process). The seemingly angry or irritable child may actually be feeling sad, disappointed or anxious. Use this opportunity to give alternative ideas for what to do next time they feel that way. For older kids and adolescents, you may not get a response right away, but they will learn that you care about how they feel. So, they may seek you out when they are ready to talk.

Listen to your child’s concerns

It can be difficult, but try to listen to your child without reacting or interrupting. When they finish telling you about their concern, ask how you can help. They may not want you to do or fix anything, but may simply find relief in being heard. If your child shares a concern with you, make sure to follow-up with them and take action if needed.

Keep checking in

Devote a few minutes each day to talk about emotions with your family. Ask each person share one thing that went well and one challenge they had that day. For young kids, ask them to share one thing they liked and one thing they didn’t like. Do this at dinner, in the car on the way home from activities, or before bed. Make sure you participate as well.

If your child is feeling sad, irritable, angry, or anxious most of the time, talk to your healthcare provider about next steps. If your child is diagnosed with anxiety or depression, make sure they know you are in it with them — form a PACT.

Participate in treatment

Attend visits with your child to their healthcare or mental health provider. Make sure your child gets their own time with the provider. Be there to share concerns or successes and participate in decision-making around options for therapy or other treatment. Ask questions about what to expect and what not to expect from any form of therapy.

Advocate

If your child is in counseling or starts on a medication, but isn’t improving or has worsening symptoms, don’t wait for the next visit. Call their provider and let them know your concerns. It may be appropriate to let school or certain teachers know their diagnosis and treatment plan. In some cases, an educational or behavioral plan may be put into place to support your child at school. Ask if there is a school counselor or a community mental health provider that can see your child at school.

Call in back-up

Supporting a child or adolescent affected by anxiety or depression can be challenging and frustrating for both of you. Navigating local resources can be overwhelming, so start by asking your healthcare or mental health provider for recommendations. Enlist the support of family, teachers, close friends, or clergy to help you and your child during this time.

Take care of yourself

Encourage your child to eat well, get regular exercise, and get enough sleep. This helps to improve both their physical and emotional health. Make sure you model these healthy behaviors, and make your own self-care a priority. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, it is even more challenging to support your child as they try to manage their symptoms. Consider seeing your own counselor or a family therapist, participate in support groups, or talk to your healthcare provider if you think treatment might be helpful.

Learn more about Pediatric Primary Care at the University of Vermont Medical Center. We are currently accepting new patients. 

Michelle Shepard, MD, PhD, is a pediatrician at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. 

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