By Guest Blogger Christine Murray

With all of the stressors we’re all facing today—including the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning and working, economic stressors, and racial injustice and inequities—perhaps it’s no surprise that mental health symptoms are on the rise.

Adults aren’t the only ones feeling the stress: Kids of all ages face a higher risk of mental health symptoms right now. Of course, many children and teenagers already were experiencing mental health challenges even before COVID, and these pre-existing challenges can be exacerbated by the added complexity of life during a pandemic.

If you’ve noticed your child has been struggling with stress, anxiety, challenging behaviors, and other social-emotional concerns recently, you may be wondering if, when, and how you should reach out for professional help from a counselor or therapist. The simple answer to this question is that reaching out for help can always be a good idea, as we all can use some extra support and guidance at different points in our lives. There should be no shame or stigma around reaching out for help for mental health concerns, whether for children, teenagers, or adults.

However, there are certain situations in which it can be especially important to seek professional support. Below are some questions to consider to help you determine whether your child’s mental health concerns might signify a need for professional help:

Is your child’s mental health improving in response to self-help strategies or different parenting approaches that you’ve tried? There are a lot of ways individuals and families can promote positive mental health on their own. This includes using relaxation strategies, staying socially connected in healthy relationships, engaging in physical activity, getting adequate rest, and using positive coping skills. In addition, parents can help foster positive mental health among their children by using positive, consistent parenting approaches, teaching children coping and relationship skills, and modeling positive self-care for themselves. However, if you and your child have tried a lot of these strategies on your own, but your child’s mental health symptoms seem to be staying the same or even getting worse, this may indicate that it’s time to seek help from a trained professional.

Are your child’s mental health symptoms causing you and/or your child significant distress? Sometimes, mental health symptoms come and go. We all have especially good and bad days from time to time. If you’re finding that your child’s symptoms are causing them distress consistently over an extended period of time, that may be a sign their symptoms are escalating. As a parent, trust your instincts as well. If you feel very distressed or worried about your child’s mental health, this may be your intuition signaling to you that your child is struggling, even if your child doesn’t openly admit it. Meeting with a professional counselor can help parents and children understand the nature and severity of mental health symptoms, as well as offer suggested treatment approaches or other resources to provide support.

How are your child’s mental health symptoms impacting their functioning in different areas of life? When mental health symptoms start to impact children’s relationships with others, schoolwork, extracurricular activities, or other areas of their lives, this can lead to secondary problems that can create even more stress and challenges for them and their families. This can become a cycle in which the mental health challenges lead to other problems, which can then impact the child’s self-esteem and lead to even more significant mental health challenges. Talking with a professional can help children and families learn to manage and, hopefully, reduce these secondary problems.

I recommend that parents consider reaching out for counseling as soon as they start to identify concerns regarding their child’s mental health. Here in the Piedmont Triad, there are many wonderful professional counselors and therapists who specialize in working with children and families, but many of them have wait lists, so it could take a couple months or more between the time you call for an appointment and when you can actually meet with a counselor for the first time. Of course, if your child is experiencing a mental health emergency or seems to be a threat to their own and/or another person’s safety, be sure to reach out for immediate assistance by calling 9-1-1 or the mental health crisis unit in your area.

Check out this blog post from our Healthy Relationships Initiative team for tips for finding a counselor. You can also visit TMoM’s directory here for local professionals recommended by other moms. If your child is open to talking about this, you might also try asking them for their thoughts on what kind of person they’d be most comfortable working with, such as the age, gender, or general approach the counselor uses. It’s important for you as the parent to feel comfortable and think the counselor is a good fit for your family, too.

As a parent, it’s hard to watch your child struggle. While you’re focusing on helping your child have positive mental health, but sure to take good care of yourself, too, which may mean seeking counseling for yourself at the same time, or even family counseling to work on your relationship. Remember that one of the best things you can do as a parent to support your child’s mental health is to make your own mental and emotional health a priority.

Christine Murray is the Director of the UNC Greensboro Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships and the Healthy Relationships Initiative. The HRI team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously on the form here.