In the United States, one out of every five children will experience mental illness in a given year. While mental illness is thought of primarily as a problem of adulthood, the reality is that half of all lifetime mental disorders begin by the age of 14, with 75% by 24 years of age. The average delay between the onset of symptoms and first treatment is 11 years. Sadly, 50% of children diagnosed with a mental illness never receive the necessary care for their condition.
Left untreated, mental health problems can lead to serious, even life-threatening consequences. Suicide, of which mental illness is a major precipitating factor, is presently the second leading cause of death among children and teens age 10 to 19 years old. A quarter of children and teens diagnosed with a mental disorder will show serious functional impairment, meaning that their mental health problem significantly interferes with or limits one or more major life activities (e.g., school).
The most common mental disorders among children and adolescents are attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, depression, and the disruptive behavior disorders (oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder). Mental disorders result from a complex interaction of biological factors and environmental stressors. While there is little that can be done about a child's biology, parents can certainly alter the level of stress to which their child is exposed.
The following are simple suggestions for how parents can reduce damaging stress and increase a child's psychological well-being:
- Structure and Routine. Routines and schedules reduce stress and anxiety. They allow a child to take a break from making decisions or guessing about the future. A daily structure and routine gives a child a sense of safety and predictability.
- Resiliency. An important factor in psychological well-being is resiliency, that is, how well a child is able to cope with and bounce back from stress and adversity (e.g., bullying, academic difficulties, and social rejection). Resiliency is not something one is born with. Rather, it is something that is learned and modeled. Parents can help children develop resiliency by teaching them to solve problems independently and modeling positive approaches to coping when they encounter challenges in their own lives.
- Reduce Parental Distress and Conflict. A child does not have the experience, emotional maturity, or cognitive skills necessary to deal with adult problems. Financial issues, legal problems, and marital discord are simply too overwhelming for a child. Parents should work out their personal distress and conflict privately, away from their children.
- Safety. Parents should make their home and family a safe haven. A safe haven is a place where a child knows he is loved and accepted for who he is, not for how he performs. A place where parents are actively engaged in their child's daily life and intentional about providing opportunities for him to ask questions and share concerns.
- Academic Issues. For children, academic achievement is often equated with success. However, children vary significantly in how they learn. Some children find school easy and rewarding while others struggle to keep up with their peers. A child should see their parent as an advocate and cheerleader in their education, not a task master. Parents should get to know their child's teacher so that they fully understand his academic strengths and weaknesses. Together they should set realistic goals based on the child's abilities. If a child struggles, take advantage of after-school programs and tutors. Never forget that a child's mental health is far more important than grades.
- Spiritual Life. Children who are able to connect with a transcendence larger than themselves can better cope with stress, resulting in lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels. They also report less anxiety, lower rates of depression, and increased feelings of security, compassion, and love. I highly recommend that parents make faith a priority within the family.
The bottom line is you need to love on your kids. They are our future. And we should always trust in the comfort God provides us as parents to nurture the ones who depend on us the most.
Listen to Dr. Matt Stanford on the daily broadcast.
On this edition, Dr. Tim Clinton sits down to discuss adolescent mental health with counselor, Dr. Matt Stanford. They address the tremendous pressure young people are under from society, and offer insight into properly and effectively caring for your kids.
Learn More about the Guest
Dr. Matt Stanford is the CEO of the Hope and Healing Center & Institute (HHCI) in Houston, Texas. He is also an adjunct professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and the Methodist Hospital Institute for Academic Medicine. He earned his Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from Baylor University, while completing his medical fellowship at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He is the author of more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience and has written 3 books. His research on the correlation between psychology and faith, has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, and Christianity Today.