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How to Support Your Kid’s Mental Health (Developmental and Emotional)

Thank you to Northern Nevada Health System for sponsoring this post on kids mental health by Ethan Steever, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer and Licensed Psychologist. Read our disclosure.

Our kids mental health is very important, especially as we continue navigating the pandemic. Parents should be aware of what to look for if they feel their child is struggling emotionally.

A pediatrician or family medicine provider can identify if a child has reached developmental and emotional milestones and subsequently refer to a specialist if needed.

Additionally, parents should foster an environment that helps their child(ren) learn healthy social skills and coping techniques for when there are problems or changes in their life.

The CDC reports that 1 in 6 children aged 2 to 8 years has a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder.

When it comes to childhood disorders, nearly any diagnosis that you would find in an adult can be identified in children. The most common diagnoses in children are depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and ADHD.

How to Identify a Mental Health Disorder in Your Child

When it comes to a kids mental health, the symptoms may vary significantly depending upon the diagnosis involved.

Ask yourself these questions to identify early if your child needs behavioral support.

This list is not all-inclusive and other behaviors may be reported. We encourage parents to identify unique changes in their child and consult with a professional if they notice the behaviors are worsening.

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  1. Is your child showing a sudden or noticeable change in their behavior, mood or level of anxiety and worry?
  2. Has the child’s appetite significantly changed (e.g. overeating, undereating, inconsistency with eating that strays from the normal)?
  3. Has your child’s sleep patterns altered, including lack of sleep or being overly tired?
  4. Is your child having a hard time paying attention?
  5. Does your child feel sad, hopeless or irritable often?
  6. Has your child’s interest in school, play or relationships changed?
  7. Is your child showing any signs of self-destructive or self-injury behavior?

Teaching Your Child to Cope During a Crisis

The goal of any parent is to keep their child safe and as we monitor our health during the pandemic, it is important to keep a close eye on any behavioral changes.

Although not a lot of data is available yet, we have seen an increase in the rates of depression, anxiety and trauma among children.

Parents should remain vigilant and look for signs that their child is struggling. Just as one can have post-traumatic stress disorder from trauma or disaster, COVID-19 is an event that can cause significant stress on a child.

The pandemic can be harder on children because they understand less about the situation, there is less control over their environment and they may not have learned coping skills for long-term crises. Nonetheless, parents can empower their children through conversation and understanding.

I recommend talking to your child regularly to hear their concerns and fears and better understand how they feel. If your child has a safe and trusted adult to talk to, they will have more opportunities to be honest about their emotions.

Additionally, if your child identifies with a teacher or coach, this person can serve as a positive advocate. Here are a few basic tips to create a positive support structure for your child during any type of crisis.

Quick Tips for Coping During a Crisis

  1. Encourage two-way conversation: Nothing is more important than allowing your child to talk through difficult times. This will help your child feel valued and supported, even when the conversation is difficult.
  2. Limit media exposure. Although there are many positive aspects to learning about our world through the media, reducing exposure to harmful messages will result in less stress on your child.
  3. Spend quality time with your child. Find opportunities to spend time with your child through play, exercise, or other activities. Use the time to grow your relationship and listen to your child’s feedback about their concerns.
  4. Build security by following a routine. Children thrive and feel safer by knowing what to expect. Maintain a routine such as Sunday dinner, family walks or other common practices in your household. Your child will inherently feel comfortable with a routine that they have come to know.
  5. Reinforce healthy activities. Encourage your child to eat healthy, integrate exercise and play daily, and drink plenty of water. These simple actions will help your child develop physically.

Treatment Options for Common Childhood Mental Health Disorders

Treating mental health disorders will vary by child and mostly depends on age and diagnosis. Nearly all childhood diagnoses are amenable to treatment through psychotherapy, which can involve talk therapy or play therapy.

ADHD treatment typically involves pharmacotherapy, although there is now a prescription video game approved by the FDA that has shown success in treating ADHD symptoms.

Most mental health disorders can be treated successfully, if managed early, compared to after symptoms have been evidenced for months or years. A licensed clinical psychologist will utilize psychological testing to validly and reliably assess any difficulties your child may be struggling with and recommend interventions.

If you are concerned about your kids mental health, consulting with a licensed clinical psychologist is a good first stop. Your pediatrician or family medicine provider can provide a referral to a psychologist.

Building a Strong Child-Parent Relationship

Above all, if the parent or caregiver has developed a strong relationship with their child, the child will be more apt to express their emotions and may consider asking for support. Creating a relationship built on love, validation and support will help your child be successful as they grow.

In addition, you can support your child by helping them develop tools to manage their emotions. Self-regulation is the practice of an individual being able to regulate their behaviors and emotions.

For example, children with these skills know how to calm themselves when they are upset or they can adjust their behavior and avoid an outburst in a challenging situation. Nonetheless, every child is different and parents should continue monitoring changes in their child that seem abnormal.

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Supporting My Child’s Self-Regulation

  1. Take a break. When your child is stressed, try taking a break and removing them from the environment for a brief period of time.
  2. Release energy. Choose their favorite activity indoors or outdoors to release some steam. Ideas such as walking, kicking a ball around, arts and crafts, or puzzle time are great ways to refocus negative energy.
  3. Breathing techniques. For adults and children alike, establishing breathing techniques are a perfect way to calm feelings quickly. Slowly breathe in and out several times to create relaxation.
  4.  Read or listen to music. Several books playfully teach children how to self-regulate. Music can also serve as a calming tool for any age group. 

There are many resources available to children struggling with mental health disorders including outpatient psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy through a psychiatrist, acute hospitalization, day treatment programs, and residential treatment.

Your child’s pediatrician or family medicine provider is a good source regarding what types of treatment will be useful for your child. The provider can also identify what options are available in your community when it comes to kids mental health.

If your child appears to be experiencing a mental health crisis you can receive help by calling 9-1-1, seeking the nearest emergency department or utilizing any of the resources listed below.

Kids Mental Health Resources

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Hotline: 800-985-5990
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 or 888-628-9454 (Spanish)
  • LGBTQ National Hotline: 888-843-4564
  • American Psychological Association Help Center

Article by: Ethan Steever, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer and Licensed Psychologist Willow Springs Treatment Center; Affiliated with Northern Nevada Medical Center

Northern Nevada Health System is a regional network of care that has elevated and improved access to healthcare for 40 years. The System operates two acute care hospitals located in Sparks and Reno, 24/7 freestanding emergency departments, a Medical Group which offers family and internal medicine, urgent care and specialty care, and Quail Surgical and Pain Management. NNHS is committed to maintaining and improving the well-being of the community and is known for top-rated patient satisfaction, in addition to providing quality care and a safe environment for patients to heal. To learn more, visit