According to the CDC, one in six children in the United States between the ages of 2 and 8 years old has a diagnosis of a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. In 2018, 9.4% of children aged 2-17 received a diagnosis of ADHD, 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years old received a diagnosis of anxiety and 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years old received a diagnosis of depression.
While these numbers are alarmingly high, many young children and adolescents who face stress both in and outside of their home have not been seen by a mental health professional and received a diagnosis or intervention. Researchers have found that one in five children has a diagnosable mental health problem; however, only one-third of these children receive help. These untreated mental health issues could interfere with a child’s academic, social and emotional development, and put them at risk for school failure, long-term emotional issues and suicide.
Children and adolescents face stress outside of the home, including peer pressure, school requirements and expectations for success at extracurricular activities. Even young children are aware of family stressors, such as marital conflict, siblings’ behavioral and emotional issues and financial hardship.
Similar to adults, children often express their feelings more openly at home where they feel accepted and safe. Therefore, parents should be aware of signs that may be associated with distress and encourage their children to convey their emotions and concerns openly. Children who are experiencing anxiety present with excessive worrying, agitation, irritability, restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, trouble falling or staying asleep, a change in appetite, avoidance of social situations, disinterest in activities and physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues and fainting.
Developing a morning and nighttime routine will help create a calmer environment for the family, and help your child plan in advance, understand the expectations, reduce stress and unwind at the end of the day. When creating a nighttime routine consider the age and personality of each child. Some children will require more structure and may benefit from a written plan that includes the times to complete each activity. Reducing commitments helps children have more time for free play and a bedtime routine. Create an environment that facilitates sleep and keep electronics out of the bedroom. Selecting clothes, preparing snacks and lunch, and packing backpacks the night before will help to minimize some of the morning chaos.
Engage your child in creating their morning routine by asking them the amount of time they would designate to complete each activity, such as getting out of bed, dressing, eating breakfast and getting their belongings together. This will help them learn time management and give them ownership of the plan. Help them make appropriate changes if the schedule does not work out.
Anxiety and fear are learned, and therefore parents should model stress management. Find time to play with your child and choose activities that do not require high-tech or expensive equipment. When given the opportunity to identify a reinforcer for their good behavior, children often select baking cookies, preparing dinner or going out to play with their parents. Children enjoy family time, such as watching a movie or family game night, and seek opportunities to spend time with the most important people in their lives.
When a child seeks advice for dealing with stress, you could recommend writing out positive thoughts; engaging in deep breathing or yoga; taking a bath or shower; talking to a friend, parent or teacher; exercising; drawing a picture; singing a song; or volunteering. Helping others is extremely beneficial because it encourages your child to value their abilities, feel accomplished and not take their own situation for granted.
Parents should seek intervention from a trained professional when a child displays behavioral, social or emotional issues that cannot be resolved. Psychotherapy is an interpersonal experience that requires finding the right match between the therapist, child and parents, and it is important to take the time to find a professional whom your child will trust. Through therapy, your child should learn to identify their triggers, articulate their feelings, focus on positive thoughts and regulate their emotions. They will become confident and better able to navigate the challenges they face.
In response to frequently asked questions and requests for advice, a three-part Mental Health Series has been planned for the Livingston community that will address several topics relating to child development and parenting. “The Anxious Child: Helping Your Child Put Life’s Stressors Into Perspective” will be presented at LifeTown on Wednesday, October 30. Rabbi David Selengut, LCSW, will present “Raising a Mensch: Disciplining With Love and Instilling Respect” on November 6 at Congregation Etz Chaim, and “You Just Don’t Get It! Enhancing Communication With Your Child and Adolescent” will be presented on November 20 at Synagogue of Suburban Torah Center. For more information, please contact Lauer-Listhaus, PsyD, at [email protected]
Dr. Lauer-Listhaus, PsyD, works in private practice in Hackensack and Livingston, New Jersey, with children, adolescents and adults with a wide range of mental health issues. She speaks internationally on topics relating to parenting, marital and sibling issues and the impact of divorce on children.