Kids Are Struggling With Their Mental Health — A Pediatric Emergency Physician Weighs In On How Parents Can Help

kids may be small, but their feelings are just as big as adults'.

Written by Katie Cloyd
Teenage girl looking away distantly

If there’s ever been a time when parents were concerned about their kids’ mental health, it’s now. The pandemic fundamentally changed childhood for so many of our children, and parents have witnessed rising levels of anxiety, fear, and sadness in their children. It can be scary to think about your child dealing with the stress of mental health disorders, but luckily, there are professionals available to light the way and help concerned parents take action to support their children’s mental and emotional health.

One of those people is Dr. Christina Johns, a nationally-respected board-certified pediatric emergency physician whose advice is often-quoted in print, television, and radio. Dr. Johns is also the Senior Medical Advisor for PM Pediatric Care, a national organization dedicated to providing urgent care, telemedicine, and behavioral health teletherapy to children and young adults across the United States.

Dr. Johns agreed to have an important conversation with Scary Mommy about kids, mental health, and how parents can help. Here’s what she had to say.

The pandemic brought youth mental health to the forefront.

“Isolation, fear, anxiety about the future, and disruption of normal life can all have a negative effect on mental health and wellness,” Dr. Johns tells Scary Mommy. As time at home and screen time have increased, so has our children’s exposure to violent, heavy topics — especially in the news. “Put that together with front row personal exposure to significant illness and loss of loved ones,” Dr. Johns says, “and all of these factors have come together in the last couple years to create a maelstrom of mental health issues among youth.”

Don’t wait to take action.

Dr. Johns compares early intervention in mental health to her experiences in urgent care. “It’s a lot easier to dress and bandage a cut the moment it happens than to deal with an infected wound that has been left untreated for days,” she explains. She says that fostering an environment of honest communication with your child and keeping an open dialogue about how they are feeling will allow you a chance to identify changes in their mental health before they snowball into a larger issue.

Open a safe conversation.

Dr. Johns points out that though kids may be small, their feelings are just as big as adults’. While their brains are developing, they need the same love, respect, and safety to express their emotions as we do.

“The first step [to getting help] is always a conversation with the child themselves,” Dr. Johns says. “Children should feel agency in their own mental wellbeing, so it’s ok to ask them for input on how best to find a solution.” She adds that the best way to encourage these conversations is to model vulnerability by sharing your own feelings and letting them know that you’re in this mental health game together. It’s all about teamwork.

Watch for changes in behavior.

If your child is unwilling or unable to articulate the state of their mental health, Dr. Johns says there are signs you can observe on your own. Behavior or sleep and dietary changes can be indicators of internal struggle, confusion, or emotional need.” She urges parents to keep an eye on how their children are eating, sleeping, performing at school, and participating in activities that usually bring them joy, and of course, investigate anytime their children express overt hopelessness or loss of interest in the world around them.

Help is closer than you may realize.

Your best ally when it comes to your child’s mental health is the person you trust to care for their physical well-being: their pediatrician or family doctor. “They are a tremendous resource and can be a guide as you start the process of determining what kind of mental health support is right for your child and your family,” Dr. Johns tells Scary Mommy.

Seeking help can feel overwhelming, and pediatric mental healthcare can be difficult to pin down. However, parents in Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania can access comprehensive, high-quality teletherapy via PM Behavioral Health. Their program was designed by a team of pediatric mental health experts specifically to support children and young adults from diagnosis through treatment.

You and your child are not alone, and with the right support, relief is possible.

Dr. Johns shares some comforting truth about children and mental health: “It’s important for parents and caregivers to know that mental health conditions in children are not uncommon. Children are more resilient than we often think, and supporting them in a therapy program can ultimately produce positive results and symptom resolution.”