Get your questions about children’s mental health answered.
We know the importance of taking care of our child’s physical health, but mental health also plays a major role in their overall well-being. It is the foundation for how all of us feel, think, and interact with others. Being mentally healthy means we have more skills and supports in place to manage stress and to cope with difficult situations. Being mentally healthy does not always make life easier, but it does make children stronger. Positive mental health allows children to be more resilient and able to adapt when difficult situations arise.
Fortunately, there are many ways to take care of a child’s mental health. These include:
- Finding activities with your child that can reduce their stress. While everyone is different, it is important that we find activities that help us reduce and manage stress. There are many excellent resources online to explore and learn what works for each child. A few ideas to get started are:
- Take a long walk outside;
- Help them start a list of things they are grateful for;
- Assist them in learn how to breathe deeply from the belly;
- Listen to their favorite music and either dance wildly or just listen to the notes;
- Help them cook and enjoy a delicious meal; and
- Encourage them to perform a random act of kindness,
- Spending time with people they care about. While connecting in person with some of the special people in your life may not be possible, there are many ways for children and youth to connect. Design and send a special “I’m thinking of you card” for important people in their lives. Help your child talk to them by phone, start a video call so they can see each other, or unwind together by playing a game online. If you have more than one child, try to spend a little one-on-one time with each child if possible. We are social by nature and enjoying a positive connection can be the boost we need.
- Teach your children how to take care of their physical health. There are many small things you can do to build better habits. Together, create a list of fun and free physical activities and do them. With your child, try a yoga class in-person or online. Teach your child how to cook simple and healthy food for meals and snacks. Eating too much sugar can have harmful effects on our bodies and our minds. Limit how much sugar you and your child eat. Drink lots of water! Water is important for our physical and mental health.
- Take care of ourselves and model healthy practices. Just as we learn to put on our oxygen mask first when flying on a plane, it is important for caregivers (e.g,. parents, grandparents, teachers) to manage their own stress in order to be in the best position to support children.
For specific ideas for fostering best mental health practices in children, visit our Activities page.
Mental illnesses are treatable health conditions that can impact how a person feels, thinks, and behaves.. While living with mental illness can be challenging, it is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, 17% of youth six to 17 years old in the United States experience at least one mental disorder each year.1 The exact cause for mental illness is not known, but research shows it is a complex combination of genetics, environment, and lifestyle. It is important to remember it is not the fault of the child or person with the illness.2
It can be difficult to identify common social, emotional, or behavioral challenges that all children face with those that may indicate a need to seek guidance from a healthcare provider. Some common warning signs include:
- Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than 2 weeks (crying frequently, unmotivated, irritable)
- Overwhelming fear with no reason, sometimes with racing heart, physical pain or fast breathing
- Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives or excessive exercise to lose weight
- Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
- Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
- Drastic changes in behavior, personality or sleeping habits
- Extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still that causes challenges in school
- Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities, like being with friends
There is no one treatment that works best for all people and all challenges. Many people find that a combination of treatments, such as talk therapy, family counseling, medications, or parents/caregiver supports work the best. Parents and young people should talk with their pediatrician or mental health provider about the options that are recommended, the evidence for their effectiveness, and any potential risks, so that they can make an informed decision. Effective treatment approaches are likely to have a specified goal, involve parents/caregivers in the treatment, include practicing new skills between sessions, and measure progress over time. If mental health needs are affecting the child’s success in school, mental health providers may recommend working with educators to identify additional supportive strategies during school.
It can be hard to know which behaviors are typical during a child’s development or when they are cause for concern. Symptoms of mental illness in children may include:
- Changes in school performance
- Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school
- Hyperactive behavior
- Frequent nightmares
- Frequent disobedience or aggression
- Frequent temper tantrums1
The earlier treatment is received for mental illness, the better the outcome will be. So if you think there is even a slight chance your child needs help, it is best to reach out as soon as possible.
If at any point a child’s behavior is unsafe or they mention wanting to hurt themselves or others, it is important to seek help immediately.2
If you or someone you know is an immediate danger to themselves or others, call 911 immediately.
If you or someone you know is not in immediate danger and need help managing a crisis, there are many options available:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They provide a toll-free hotline available 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. The Lifeline is available in more than 150 languages.
- Contact YouthLine. They provide phone, text, and chat support for youth ages 11 – 21. The phone lines are open 24-hours a day and answered by youth from 4-10 pm (PT), outside of those hours, adults will be available to answer calls. YouthLine can be reached by:
- Calling 877-968-8491
- Texting ‘teen2teen’ to 839863
- Chat by going online
- Text Crisis Text Line. Text Hello to 741741. If you prefer texting to calling this is an excellent option as the service is entirely text-based. A live, trained Crisis Counselor will receive the text and respond as soon as possible from their secure online platform.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has presented many challenges for children and families. Right now many caregivers are faced with explaining and helping children adjust and settle into an ever-changing landscape. We know this is a difficult time and additional support may be needed. Below is a list of mental health resources that may help you and your family:
- Fostering Resilience: Responding to the Needs of School-Age Children by the South Southwest MHTTC.
- Tips for the Public: Managing Your Stress by Texas Health and Human Services Commission
- Parent Resources for Helping Kids Cope with COVID-19 by Changes – Rock Springs
- Supporting Children During Coronavirus by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
- Just For Kids: A Comic Exploring The New Coronavirus by NPR
- Talking to Children About COVID-19 by the National Association of School Psychologists
Want to Learn More?
Here’s a list of some of the best sites for learning more about children’s mental health.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Child Mind Institute
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Federation of Families
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Texas Family Voice Network
- U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health