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It is no longer groundbreaking news to hear that there is a mental health crisis in this country, but it may surprise you to hear that this crisis is not limited to the approximately 20% of adults in the United States who grapple with clinical depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses; it’s also affecting our children.

According to the CDC, almost 17% of all children have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or behavior disorders.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that one in five teenagers between 13 and 18 will experience at least one “severe mental disorder” during their life, in addition to roughly 13% of children between five and 15 years years of age.

Photo: iStock

For parents, monitoring and paying close attention to our children’s mental health is vital.  This is particularly true as we step into 2021 –  a new year that is following a global pandemic, as well as political and economic turmoil.  That being said, many parents understandably find themselves wondering where to start, and how exactly to not only approach their children about mental health but also how to create a safe space for their children to approach them in kind.  We recently had a conversation with educator and concierge psychotherapist Dr. Donna Marks on the subject, and she was able to offer valuable advice for any parents wanting to broach the sensitive subject of mental wellness with their children.

PBSD:  An area that is so often overlooked is the mental health of children.  What are some ways we can check in on our children’s mental health status?

DM: Being attuned to our children and making sure they are the priority is of utmost importance. Currently, kids spend more time alone and with electronics than with family. Kids need their parents to guide them and teach them life skills. Kids need time with their parents so that they feel connected as a family unit. Kids will open up if they feel safe. Gentle, supportive communication is the key to kids talking about their feelings.

Photo: Getty Images

PBSD: What is the best way to normalize the sharing of feelings and emotions at home?

DM: Kids should be taught that it’s ok to be sad and mad. It’s normal and natural. Then they can be nurtured when they are sad, and can be taught how to express their anger with words rather than actions, “I feel mad because _________.  When a parent models healthy behavior, the child will, too. If a child sees a parent cry, they are getting a powerful message that we are all human. If a child see a parent express anger in a healthy way (without attack), i.e.,  “I’m so frustrated that the chores are getting done,” “I’m so angry with my boss,” “I don’t feel like anyone is listening to me!” When young children show anger they usually throw something, hit something or deliver a verbal attack. Tell them it’s ok to be angry, but they need to use words or actions that don’t hurt anyone. They can pound their pillow, scream in their room, or talk about their feelings. If they are sad, let them cry, hold them, nurture them, without trying to fix the situation. Then you are validating their feelings and their ability to work it out.

PBSD: What is the best approach for children who have difficulty sharing things?

DM: If they won’t open up, tell them that you’re worried and that you can tell something is wrong. Then share a time in your childhood when you were upset and didn’t have anyone to talk to or were too afraid to talk about what was bothering you. Active listening and reflecting back what you heard your child say will help a child to feel safe to open up more. Get away for a weekend, one-on-one time together can help. Teens tend to clam up but at the same time, they desperately want to be validated. Kids often see things wrong in their families that adults don’t recognize. A parent who is willing to hear about that is teaching their child a very important life lesson about how to address conflicts and work through them.

Photo: Teen Life

PBSD: Many parents don’t know what to look for, if their child is in distress or pain.  What are some warning signs of distress in children?

DM: Isolating in their rooms. Not wanting to be with friends. Moodiness. Shut down. Inappropriate behavior that’s out of character. Kids who have been abused tend to reenact that behavior with other kids.  In general, if a child is acting different, something could be wrong.

PBSD: When should a counselor be consulted?

DM: Whenever a parent is concerned, it’s better to seek help than wait. Early detection can help to prevent future drug use, suicide, acting out, and depression.

PBSD: How can we remove the stigma of mental health concerns with our children?

DM: I think we need to approach the mental health of our children just as we would physical health. When you see something is wrong, get help. Parents aren’t perfect. Many things can happen inside and outside of the home that could affect a child, and a child might be too afraid to talk about it. Make sure you take your child to someone who is trained in therapy and doesn’t dispense pills as the first protocol unless it is absolutely necessary. While there are some cases that warrant medication, it should be a last resort and only when absolutely necessary. Studies have shown that kids who are on medication are more likely to develop addictions later on. Children are facing unprecedented challenges and conflicts and need support more than ever.

Photo: Tara Inc. Photography

Dr. Donna Marks is an educator, concierge psychotherapist and addictions counselor who has felt a calling to help others all her life. She has worked with over 6,000 clients.  Dr. Marks currently offers concierge psychotherapy services at her Palm Beach office. Easily and confidentially book an appointment with her by clicking here.

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Donna Marks is an educator and licensed psychotherapist and addictions counselor in Palm Beach, Florida. Since 1989, she has worked with over 6,000 clients. Donna’s struggle with addiction brought her to a worldwide search for healing. She became licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in 1987. In 1989, she earned a Doctorate Degree in Adult Education, then became Certified in Addictions, Gestalt Therapy, Psychoanalysis, Hypnosis, and Sex Therapy. Donna developed an award-winning addiction training program at Palm Beach Community College. She co-owned an outpatient treatment program and is a consultant to treatment centers. Donna is the author of two books; Learn, Grow, Forgive, and the multi-award-winning, Exit the Maze-One Addiction, One Cause, One Cure, and created an online course for people who want to be cured of addiction. 

Donna is a public speaker and has shared her methods with hundreds of thousands of listeners on podcasts and radio shows.

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