When Lynn Zakeri learned that her two sons would be missing out on the fall of their freshman and senior years of high school amid the pandemic, the licensed clinical social worker was concerned about how they’d cope with another setback. Her youngest son already missed his eighth-grade graduation in the spring, and her eldest had spent months training for his upcoming varsity soccer season.
Zakeri felt heartbroken for them, but when she asked how they felt about the news, she was pleasantly surprised by their optimistic attitudes. After all, according to a recent systematic review in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children and adolescents are at higher risk of experiencing feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of isolation from peers, teachers, and extended family.
When it comes to our children’s mental health, we can’t really see their internal states—that’s why it’s important to ask and listen rather than simply assume we know how they feel, Zakeri says. “I think always playing the role of questioner is better than us playing the role of the definer.”
And while it’s normal for kids to sometimes feel fear, anxiety, and sadness, checking in regularly can help you recognize when they need extra support, especially as they deal with events that few have ever experienced. Here’s what the experts say about talking to your kids about their mental health.
First, check in with yourself
Children and adolescents often learn how to identify, express, and manage their emotions by observing their parents’ emotional displays—something called modeling.
So how can you be an effective role model? “One of the things I recommend to parents is to first check in with their own mental health,” says Carla Marin, a licensed child and adolescent psychologist who specializes in anxiety-related disorders at the Yale School of Medicine.
“It’s like when you’re in the airplane, and they tell you to put on that mask first before you help other people,” she says. “What are the stressors in your life? Do you have a support system in place that you can talk to? Are you able to identify symptoms of anxiety and depression?” Parents need to manage their own emotions before they can respond to their children’s mental health needs.
Recognize signs of anxiety and depression
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions in children. In addition to feelings of fear and worry, children may display physical symptoms like fatigue, stomachaches, and headaches. But Marin cautions against reinforcing avoidant behaviors. For instance, if a child is afraid to sleep alone, you should encourage them to do so anyway. “If the parent allows the child to avoid a scenario or situation that they know cannot really harm them, it sends the unspoken message to the child that this is something that they should be worried about,” she explains. “That actually puts them at risk for developing an anxiety disorder later on.”
Changes in behavior may also be signs of depression or anxiety, says Kathryn Lige, a social worker in the Student Success Program at the Child Mind Institute. Younger kids might throw tantrums, become easily tearful, clingy, or ask frantic questions. Older children and adolescents may show changes in sleep, appetite, physical and social activity, irritability, low motivation, and lack of energy.
Parents should also look for signs of physical and emotional self-harm, Lige says. Some kids might pick at their skin, pull out their hair, self-inflict wounds, or drink alcohol and use drugs. Emotional self-harm includes negative self-talk or feelings of worthlessness—this can easily go undetected if parents aren’t asking questions.
Normalize talking about emotions
Parents can also help children learn how to articulate these difficult emotions. In fact, another component of effective modeling is helping your kids label what they’re feeling—this starts as early as preschool.
Lige recommends using visual aids to help children develop this vocabulary early. For example, you might look at emojis, picture books, or movies, then connect a character’s facial expression with an emotion. (“Cinderella looks sad when she finds out she’s going to miss the ball.”)
When young children can’t verbally express what they’re feeling, they might act out, throw temper tantrums, or withdraw. If your child appears upset or overwhelmed, Marin advises against punishing or ignoring them. Check in, help them calm down, and put a name to their emotions. (“It looks like something is upsetting you right now. Let’s take a deep breath. You can tell Mom or Dad what’s bothering you.”) You can also model this by talking about your own emotions and problem-solving strategies—just remember to use language that’s age-appropriate for your child.
It’s just as important to have these talks with older children and adolescents. “Having normal conversations around feelings and emotions and just making that part of family discussions really destigmatizes it,” Marin says. She recommends asking your child how they’re feeling regularly, not just bringing it up when you think there’s a problem.
Be the listener
Asking questions is just the first step—your kids also want to feel heard.
“It’s important that you recognize that your child is feeling the way that they’re feeling—even if it seems to you somewhat irrational,” Marin says. “Support comprises two components—validating how the child is feeling, but also instilling a sense of self-sufficiency. Say ‘Hey, you just told me that this is really bothering you. I hear you. I understand that this is upsetting, but I think you can also cope with it. Let’s talk about it some more.’”
Lige recommends using active listening skills. Avoid distractions when you’re talking to your kids, and give them verbal and physical cues to show you’re listening. That means putting down the phone, turning off the TV, making eye contact, nodding your head, and asking follow-up questions.
Timing also matters. “If they have their headphones on or they're in the middle of chatting with friends, all they want to do is let you talk and get back to what they’re doing,” Zakeri says. She suggests carving out time to talk to your kids during activities they also want to do, like taking a walk, going for a drive, or baking cookies together.
Zakeri stresses the importance of listening and validating whatever your child shares with you without being dismissive or judgmental. “Children have to be safe to say things that are negative—that’s OK, we all have negative feelings,” she says. “If you only reassure your kids that everything is fine when they tell you it’s not, your kids are going to stop coming to you.”
That also means keeping a cool head during difficult conversations. “A kid doesn’t want to worry their parents. They want to know that whatever they put out there, you can handle,” Zakeri says. If you’re struggling to manage your own feelings, she recommends talking to a therapist. “Put all your angst and anxiety on other people who can hold it for you—but your kids can’t.”
Get help when you need it
It’s normal for kids to experience negative emotions, especially during major transitions like the ones we’ve experienced during the pandemic, Lige says. But when these symptoms are severe, interfere with daily life, or last more than a few weeks, parents should consider talking to an expert about screening and evidence-based treatments.
“Mental and emotional concerns can get better with professional help,” Marin says. "Just like we go to a medical doctor to treat a physical ailment, we need to see mental health on the same plane as physical illness.”
If you decide to seek expert help, she recommends being honest with your child while using age-appropriate language. (“Mommy and daddy have noticed you seem sad lately, so we want you to meet with someone who can help you feel better.”) If a child refuses to participate, Marin says not to feel discouraged—a mental health provider can still work with you and recommend strategies to help your child.
Finally, remember that your kids are watching how you express and manage your emotions and modeling their behavior after you. That’s why it's equally important to get help for yourself when you need it, Lige says. “If your child is struggling, you’re not going to be able to attend to them if you’re struggling.”