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Raising Healthy Kids: A Blog from Your Trusted Pediatrician

Health and Wellness

Checking in on mental health with your kids

Throughout the past year I have seen families give it their all, trying to create positive home and school environments for their children as our sense of ‘normal’ was turned on its head during a global pandemic. We have battled uncertainty, stress, sadness and fear –and children have been particularly affected. While rising vaccination rates and return to school are beacons of hope in many cases, I worry that the losses and stressors of the past year will burden our hearts and minds for some time.

Healthcare providers around the world are reporting increases in child and teen anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. Each week families come into our clinic and share their struggles. Children are using their phone and computer screens more than ever and spending much less time outdoors and with friends. Grabbing a mask is as normal as grabbing your keys on the way out the door and impromptu sleepovers seem like a thing of the past.

Supporting the emotional health of children and families is more important now than ever before. So, where do we start?

It starts with open communication

Make open communication the norm in your household. At dinner try sharing about your day, even the difficult parts. This can show your children it is normal and okay to face struggles throughout the day. Then, ask your children about their day, no matter their age. The details of their day are important! Remind your children that they should never feel shame for their feelings or thoughts and that is okay to share with you, without fear of judgment or punishment. Reassure them that you will get through this together – they are not alone.

Look for signs for depression

Young children often don’t have the words to describe how they’re feeling. Be vigilant. Infants and young children can show distress through changes in sleep, toileting or feeding. They may even seem to go backward on skills they once mastered. We call this ‘regression.’ For example, a child might start wetting the bed after they were fully potty trained.

Other signs of child anxiety or depression include:

  • Crying more easily
  • Waking up more often at night, having nightmares or night terrors
  • Picky eating, stomach pain or constipation
  • Separation anxiety, seeming more ‘clingy’
  • Big tantrums, hitting or biting

Older children and teens with anxiety or depression might act out, become more withdrawn or start to have physical symptoms. Watch for:

  • Changes in mood - irritability, anger, resentment or violence
  • Withdrawing from people or activities they used to love. For example, did your budding artist suddenly stop drawing? Have they stopped Facetiming their best friend?
  • Trouble falling asleep or sleeping during the day
  • Changes in appetite – overeating or skipping meals
  • Increase in risky behaviors, lying or using drugs
  • Expressed thoughts of suicide.

If you’re worried that your child or teen is severely depressed or has thoughts of suicide, make your home safe by removing weapons and ammunition and seek help immediately. One of the most useful tools I share with patients is the NAMI Crisis Text Line. By simply texting the word “NAMI” to 741741 you or your child can connect with a crisis counselor trained to offer help. Along with NAMI crisis texting, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) can connect you with a trained counselor.

Not all children having suicidal thoughts share them, not even in the most emotionally secure and supportive homes. That’s why knowing these other signs and bringing your child in for a visit is so important.

You might be thinking that some of the signs I mentioned above are normal behaviors… All teenagers have mood swings, right? Don’t all toddlers have a stage in which they bite and hit? As a parent you know your child’s nature and routine. I encourage you to follow your instincts and play it safe - even a subtle change in mood might be cause enough to talk with them or seek help.

As a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, I am here to care for my patients’ mental and emotional health just as much as their physical health. At the clinic we screen for anxiety, depression and suicide and discuss mental health concerns in a safe, supportive and confidential setting. Together we can decide which tools and resources fit your child’s needs and your parenting style and talk about the best ways to build family resilience.

After a year like this, all of us are due for an Emotional Well Check. Let’s talk - my door is open.

Erica Baumker, PNP

Pediatrics

Schedule an in-person or telehealth appointment with Erica today, 707-459-6115.