"Mom, I don't want to go to school today. I'm not good at writing letters. Some of my friends are better than me," my almost 4-year-old told me with tears in his eyes. This was the first time he ever told me he didn't want to go to preschool. It was certainly the first time he revealed anxiety about what other people thought of him or his abilities.
"Honey, you're still learning how to write letters. You do so well at learning things! Maybe we can write letters together this afternoon. Would you like to practice letters with me?" I gave him a big hug hoping to spark some excitement. He sluggishly nodded his head, put on his backpack and headed out the door.
This scenario lingered with me all day. Honestly, I wasn't concerned about his ability to write letters. He's almost 4 and intelligent and curious. I was concerned about his mental health. Were other kids making fun of his handwriting? Were the teachers openly comparing students' handwriting to encourage improvement? Or did he compare himself to his classmates on his own? Was this going to affect his development and confidence in other areas?
A Pew Research Report released in January of 2023 found parents are more concerned about their child's mental health than other previously common factors. Four in 10 U.S. parents with children younger than 18 say they are "extremely" or "very worried" that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point. These items topped parents' concerns about certain physical threats to their children, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, teen pregnancy and getting in trouble with the police. (It should be noted the report indicated that mothers are more likely than fathers to worry about most of these things by significant margins.)
The rise in concern about mental health isn't surprising. We're just on the other side of a global pandemic, and many reports reveal a youth mental crisis.
(READ MORE: Mental health crisis among children is a national emergency, experts say)
Here are a few ways you can positively influence and care for your child's mental health:
› Provide a safe, loving environment. Set reasonable expectations for your child based on their age and development. This includes their list of chores, how they handle change and how they process their emotions. Praise your child for the things they do well, and regularly let them know you love them.
› Use open communication and ask questions. If you notice your child is retreating or in deep thought, ask, "What are you thinking about?" or "How are you feeling?" This will encourage them to talk to you about things they may be struggling with or processing internally. Even if they don't answer you immediately, the fact that you opened the door makes it more likely for them to come to you when they are ready to talk.
› Break down problem thoughts together. If your child begins to share thoughts of anxiety or depression, break down those thoughts together and help bring them back to reality. Therapists use the ABC model during cognitive behavioral therapy, which uses techniques to stop negative cycles by making problems more manageable. It's a useful tool you can use on your own or with your child. Here's how it works.
A: What is the Adversity or Activating event that caused the thought? (For example: When it was time to go to school, my son became anxious and didn't want to leave the house.)
B: What are the Beliefs around that event? (My son believed his ability to write letters wasn't as good as his fellow classmates, and therefore HE wasn't as good as his classmates.)
C: What are the positive and negative Consequences of these beliefs? (Believing his handwriting was bad was keeping my son from wanting to go to school and learn. Staying home would hinder him from being able to see his friends, play and continue to learn new things, all things he really wanted to do and be a part of.)
(READ MORE: Parkridge Valley uses recreation as a form of therapy for children, teens)
All in all, the greatest gift you can give to your child's mental health is a deeply connected relationship. Remember, you know your child better than anyone. If you're deeply concerned about your child's mental health, take the free parent screening at mhascreening.org to see if professional help may be needed.
Lauren Hall is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.