Listen! Your child’s mental health depends on you

Listen up, parents.

The most important thing you can do for your young son or daughter is listen. That’s right: Listen. And if it’s worth reading three times in the first two paragraphs of this blog, it’s worth reading again.

“Listen to them. If we listen without judgment, they will share,” said Bernice Young, a psychotherapist in Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health for OSF HealthCare.

It’s possible that listening – especially to your children – has never been more important. The world – from the global stage on down to interpersonal relationships in our communities, jobs, neighborhoods and homes – can be complicated and confusing.

Our kids might put on a brave front. But they feel the stress.

Suicide, fear of death top concerns

Bernice has listened to hundreds, if not thousands, of young people during her 26-year career.

Many issues she has encountered through the years still exist. But since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic roared into our lives, there are a lot more.

Topping the list is a fear of dying.

“Fear of death is on a different level now,” Bernice said. “Some children, their parents died. Some developed a fear of death because they heard so much about it. There was an overload of talk on the news about COVID-19.”

Perhaps paradoxically, another profound change since early 2020 is a dramatic escalation in the youth suicide rate. The rate had been rising, but it leaped with the onset of the pandemic, especially among girls. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suspected suicide attempt visits to hospital emergency departments by girls age 12-17 in February and March 2021 spiked by 50.6% over the same period in 2020.

“The numbers are getting younger: 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds,” Bernice said. “Before, we often thought the teenage years were the challenging time, but we’re seeing kids of a younger age – and especially girls.”

When Bernice listens to young girls, she finds that many of them feel left out and isolated. They compare their developing bodies against each other and feel inadequate. Or they seek particular peer relationships and are made to feel they’re not good enough to belong.

Additional disrupting factors

Schools closing for health safety reasons and moving to virtual classrooms compound the problems.

“High school freshmen last year didn’t get a normal start, and most people feel they got cheated,” Bernice said. “Seniors didn’t get to have Senior Night in the normal ways. A lot didn’t have proms. They didn’t get the camaraderie they typically have.

“Student-athletes, who normally get recruited their senior year, weren’t playing and being seen. So they’re having to go a different route, and that has caused not only anxiety, but depression.”

Then there’s the increase in violence throughout society, ranging from mass shootings in popular public venues to targeted shootings to riots.

“The reality is this is happening so much. Our young people are becoming desensitized,” Bernice said. “For some of our young people, it has become normal to hear gunshots in their neighborhood. It’s disheartening.”

In other words, pretty much everyone is in a tough spot and could use some help.

Young people need love and support

So, how do we help our children cope?

“I encourage parents first to take care of themselves,” Bernice said. “Probably the most anxiety-provoking subject is that kids are stressed because their parents are stressed.”

And then?

“Basically, what I do is listen,” Bernice said. “Talk to them and listen to them. They need a safe space to talk about what they’re feeling. Try not to stress about the homework, and just listen. When you listen, you’ll find out that if something bad is not happening to them, it’s happening around them, and they may be coping in unhealthy ways.”

Be careful not to dismiss your young person’s feelings as “just going through a developmental stage.” That might be partly true, but there is usually more to what they are experiencing.

Make sure your children know they have your love and support. If they don’t get it from you, they will seek it elsewhere – possibly in ways that will hurt them.

Find help for your child

You don’t have to shoulder the burden yourself.

“We have lots of resources out there, and some resources don’t cost anything,” Bernice said.

OSF HealthCare offers a wide range of behavioral and mental health services, including pediatrics. An OSF behavioral health navigator can help you understand the resources available and link you to the appropriate services to best fit your needs. There is no charge to meet with a behavioral health navigator. Call (309) 308-8150 to get started.

And here’s a positive to keep in mind:

“Many of our teenagers are really resilient. They may be disappointed with how things are, but they’re not giving up,” Bernice said.

“What I’ve seen, too, is that they really want people to treat each other well. They want equity. They’re standing up for friends and being supportive.”

Many are also open to the need for professional counseling. They might just need to hear from you that it’s OK.


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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: Kids & Family, Mental Health