How to build a safety net for your kids’ mental health
Having witnessed teenage depression up close for five years now, I’m not sure parents can prevent the illness. But it won’t hurt to build a bit of a safety net for your kids’ mental health. Here’s how.
When my daughter was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety at age 13, she had straight As, an after-school job, and a social life. She seemed fine until, ever responsible, she told me she was depressed and that she needed help.
Now it makes sense to me. My daughter is an achiever and a rule follower. She gave herself timeouts as a toddler. She has always been exceedingly resourceful, independent and responsible.
I have no doubt she tried to manage her illness on her own before asking me for help. And I also have no doubt that things spiralled out of control that much faster because we didn’t find help that helped her fast enough.
So with those lessons learned, and knowing depression can run in families, I’m taking a more proactive approach with my younger son. Here’s how you, too, can build a bit of a safety net for your kids’ mental health.
1. Tell your kids you will happily get them help if they want or need it
A while back, I spoke with Jeff Williams, head of Business Development at BetterHelp.org, which is billed as the world’s largest online counselling platform.
Most of the traffic entering the funnel on teencounseling.com comes through the “Teen” door versus the “Parent” door, Jeff said.
Most of the teenagers complete the intake questionnaire, a series of questions about why they’re there and what they need. They create an account with email and password, verify their email address, and then answer more questions.
As far as sales funnels go, it’s a long one. There are a lot of steps. I did it myself the other day. But teens are completing them all. They want help.
And then they get to this screen. Any guesses what happens?
“Traffic falls of a cliff,” Jeff says.
Parents should know this. That kids are seeking out online counseling for their mental health at higher rates than parents. What’s stopping them from getting it is a fear of involving their parents.
As the adult in this relationship, why not make the first move? Let your kids know it’s ok to ask for help. That you would help them in a second, no questions asked. Tell them often, even if they seem perfectly fine.
2. Teach your kids how to be there for their friends
In Canada, Jack.org surveyed 1200 youth and found 83% have supported a friend with a mental health issue. Only 39% of them felt they were prepared to offer the support needed. That’s a heavy weight to bear as a kid.
Whether directly or indirectly, our kids are dealing with mental health issues, so why not be proactive and help them out. Jack.org has made it super easy to do so.
- Say what you see
- Show you care
- Hear them out
- Know your role
- Connect to help
So, talk to your kids. Ask them if they’ve ever had to support one of their friends. Ask them if they knew what to do. Point them to BeThere.org. Tell them they can come to you if they need help helping a friend.
In the process, you may find you’ve opened a window to talking with your teen about mental health without “getting in their business,” as my son would say.
3. Anticipate potential pitfalls and act accordingly
I first learned about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) from Dr. Khush Amaria, a clinical psychologist and Senior Clinical Director at Beacon MindHealth.
ACES are traumatic experiences such as physical or sexual abuse, violence in the home, addiction or mental illness, or the loss of a parent. The more ACES one experiences before the age of 18, the higher the risk of both physical and mental illnesses in adulthood.
But Dr. Amaria said kids can also be deeply affected by more common experiences such as divorce, moving to a new city, or economic insecurity.
It’s good to know this. It’s a good reminder to put yourself in your kids’ shoes and ask yourself, is this situation likely to cause them stress? And if so, do they have the resources and support they need to cope? Is there something I can do to better prepare them if I know there may be challenges ahead?
For me, that means therapy before depression sets in. A checkup, like a visit to the dentist. It means sending my kids links to sites like BeThere.org, BigWhiteWall and Kids Help Phone, and talking openly and often about mental health. Too often, my kids might say, but hey, if it means I get a jump on any issues, I’m ok with that.