The Way We Think About Kids’ Mental Health Is Dead Wrong

Research tells us we should be talking to our children about their well-being early and often.

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As parents and educators, we talk to our kids in the preschool years about safety and physical health. We educate them about being the “boss of their bodies,” that from author and teacher, Pattie Fitzgerald. We give them the age-appropriate language to normalize and talk about their private parts, penis vs. pee pee. We talk incessantly about their physical health, providing them with nutrition and fitness education.

But when it comes to mental health, our 12 year-olds and younger, are left to fend for themselves. Parents are left to fend for themselves as well. We need to change the paradigm and focus on our preschoolers, kindergarteners, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. We must proactively teach them how to take care of their mental health and well-being as if their lives depended on it. Because if you look at the statistics, there’s no more time to waste. 

According to a recent report from the CDC, “Beginning in April 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health-related Ed visits among all pediatric ED visits increased and remained elevated through October. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health-related visits for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years increased approximately 24% and 31% respectively.

Of course these numbers reflect the trauma we have all felt due to the pandemic. But if you look at where we were before Covid-19 hit us, our kids were suffering from bullying, unhealthy social media exposure and academic achievement pressure. And an even more troubling statistic, the rate of suicide for people ages 10 to 24 increased nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-34 in 2018 per the CDC. 

By the time our kids enter the tween and teen years, as a society we are reacting to the mental health issues they display. And it’s challenging. So why wouldn’t we look at where we are and start to rethink mental health education and preventative work? If we are going to get ahead of this disturbing trend, we must be proactive and think bigger.

So how do you do that? First, we must be overt in our discussions about mental health and well-being. We must tell our children clearly and often that mental health is just as important as physical health and safety. 

Second, we can teach the youngest in our population strategies toward better mental health. We can help educate parents and teachers to implement these techniques in the home and in schools via teacher training and parent education. We can use books and school curriculums to educate kids, parents and families. 

Third, as the adults in our children’s lives, we must model self-love and self-compassion. We know from science we can grow empathy, compassion and love. When you learn to love yourself, you can better take care of yourself, not just physically, but mentally as well. 

This may seem like an enormous task, exhausting for parents and teachers. But we really have no other choice. We have to change the way we think about kids’ mental health, our approach and the education around it. 

Teachable Strategies Toward Better Mental Health In Children

-Manage emotions: identify the emotion, understand the emotion, feel the emotion, and then move on to a more positive emotion, if possible

-deep breathing, mindfulness

-journaling- writing/drawing, for younger children

-incorporate mental health discussions into everyday life

-educate yourself on mental wellness

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