Our children have been dealing with a lot. There’s a lingering pandemic, protests, school shootings, and mass shootings (more than 320 since early July). Not to mention everyday stressors brought on by social media (and honestly, just being a kid). Even if kids don’t experience trauma first hand, seeing coverage on TV or any social platform — or simply overhearing it at school — can be tough to process. (BTW, if you’re thinking “Um, it’s hard on me.” You’re not alone. Here’s how you can recognize and treat your own anxiety).
My kid is having a tough time — is that normal?
Dr. Tali Raviv, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences (child psychology) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a child clinical psychologist at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said when kids are exposed to traumatic events (no matter their age), it’s normal for them to act differently. They may have trouble sleeping and concentrating. They may cry more or become clingy. In general, the closer a child is to a traumatic event (aka: they knew someone who was injured vs. they saw pictures from the event), the more severe their reactions will be and the longer they can last.
But it’s not normal if it goes on for more than a couple of weeks, said Dr. Raviv, who treats kids with emotional and behavioral problems. And if it’s disrupting their lives, it’s time to get them professional help.
What signs of distress do I need to look for in my child?
Children under 5:
Look for developmental regressions. Dr. Raviv said to watch out for things like…
Your child may start sucking their thumb again.
If they were potty trained, they could start having accidents.
They may need help falling or staying asleep.
They may become more clingy.
“[For] younger kids who don't have the ability to verbalize what they're going through, look for changes in eating, sleeping, toileting as signs that they may be going through some emotional distress,” said Dr. Raviv.
Lisa Savage, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of the Center for Child Development, said they could also become aggressive.
“They may be a little bit more hyperactive than normal because their nervous system has kind of kicked into overdrive,” she said.
School-aged children and pre-teens:
For older kids, signs could include…
Trouble sleeping (Think: nightmares, early wake-ups, and difficulty falling asleep)
Changes in appetite
Examples: “Declining invitations to go places with friends or family that maybe before they would've liked to do, or avoiding certain places or things that might remind them of something traumatic that has happened to them or that they've seen,” said Dr. Raviv.
Beyond the ones mentioned above, signs might include…
Turning to alcohol, smoking, or drugs as a way to calm their nerves
Talking of death or dying
Changes in their personal hygiene (aka: looking disheveled or not showering as frequently)
Where can my child get mental health support?
If your kid is hurting or thinking about hurting themselves, get immediate help, said Dr. Raviv. If you’re concerned with imminent risk, she said you should take them to the closest emergency room (We added more resources below).
To find someone your child can talk to, Dr. Raviv said to start with your pediatrician since they should already have a relationship with you and your kid. They should refer you to the best mental health professional for your child (Think: a good psychologist or therapist).
Another option is to talk to your kid’s school guidance counselor. They usually have ties to resources within and outside school.
Savage, whose practice works directly with schools, recommended parents call and ask if there’s a mental health professional at the school. She said school resources can be especially helpful in marginalized communities, which are more likely to experience trauma and less likely to get support and access to care. Primary care providers and mental health services are usually harder to find in high-poverty areas, too, said Savage.
Insurance might cover some of your child’s mental health costs. Key word: might. Many employers also have separate employee assistance programs that cover mental health services (Think: the first three therapy sessions). Check with your employer to see if your plan covers family members too.
Insurance isn’t the only challenge in finding help…
How long will my child have to wait to see a mental health professional?
Mental illness and the demand for psychological services are at all-time highs, especially among children. A recent study from the US Department of Health and Human Services showed that between 2016 and 2020, the number of children aged 3-17 that were diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29%, and those diagnosed with depression grew by 27%.
Savage said many private practices and public agencies have waitlists. But our experts said getting your child help is worth the wait.
“If we address issues when a child is young, it's going to decrease the chances of them having ongoing issues as they become adults,” said Savage.
“We have really good evidence that therapy for really common mental health concerns — anxiety, depression, trauma-related stress, behavior problems — does help, and it predicts better outcomes for kids in terms of academics and in terms of having better peer relationships,” said Dr. Raviv.
Where can I find more resources for supporting my child’s mental health?
If your child is talking about hurting themselves, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Starting July 16, 2022, you’ll be able to connect to the lifeline by calling or texting the number 988.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a Disaster Distress Helpline that gives 24/7 crisis counseling and support at 1-800-985-5990.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a helpline open Monday - Friday, 10am - 10pm at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
The American Psychological Association (APA) has a psychologist locator online where you can search by zip code. You can see who’s in your area, if they take insurance, and if they are accepting new patients.
The National Register of Health Service Psychologists, an independent nonprofit organization, has a Find a Psychologist service that allows you to search by zip code, what you need help with, and even the ages served.
For therapists of color, Clinicians of Color was created by Savage. You can search the directory for BIPOC therapists.
It’s normal for anyone, kids included, to react to traumatic events like mass shootings. But mental health experts say if they’re still having issues a couple of weeks later, it’s time to get professional help through their school, pediatrician, or at the resources linked above. Anxiety and other disorders can start at a young age. But getting your child the care they need early leads to better outcomes as they age into adults.
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