If you sense that your child needs mental health support, listen carefully, check out different providers, and participate in the therapy process.
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Since the pandemic's onset, I have been keeping a watchful eye on all three of my children. Parenting with all of its usual responsibilities is a significant job but keeping an extra eye on my children's well-being feels, at times, overwhelming. Was that tantrum typical? Is my child spending too much time alone? Is my child just cranky or is it something more?

The pandemic has taken a toll on the mental well-being of everyone, and children have been particularly hard hit. According to Mental Health America, nearly 14 percent of 12 to 17 year olds reported having at least one major depressive episode in the past year. That's 206,000 more youth than the previous year. Also, 9.7 percent of youth (or more than 2.3 million) are suffering from severe major depression.

Fortunately, there are parenting resources available to help determine if a child is going through the usual ups and downs or when there might be more going on. "Typically, if it is something where your child starts to seem down for a few days, watch their behavior," says Jill Emanuele, Ph.D., senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. "But if the behavior persists for more than two weeks, they are isolating themselves more, or there is a definite shift in their demeanor, you want to look into some outside support."

An image of a little girl during a therapy session.
Credit: Getty Images.

It can also help to keep open relationships with other adults who interact with your child daily. Teachers, school counselors, coaches, and even other parents can help shed light on behaviors and interactions that you—as the parent—may not experience. "Use your network to talk to people that you trust and find out what they are noticing," says Dr. Emanuele.

Here's what experts say concerned parents can do to help their child if they are dealing with a mental health issue.

Check in With Your Child

If you sense your child needs mental health support, talk to them. To start the conversation, ask questions such as "I noticed you have seemed sort of upset lately" or "You seem to get annoyed with me quickly. Is there anything you want to talk about?" Doing this while walking alone together, driving in the car, or in another safe, quiet environment can help a child feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and emotions. Be patient. Do not force the conversation if they aren't ready to open up.

If conversations with your child concern you, and if your kid seems open to the idea of speaking with someone, then it may be time to get professional help. If your child does not want to go to therapy, listen to their reasoning, and validate how they feel. But if you feel it is time to look into support, provide your child with a thoughtful explanation as to why it may be a good thing to try out.

Help Find Your Child a Therapist

A great first step is reaching out to your child's pediatrician. Ask for several recommendations—not just one! Word of mouth and even parent listservs or Facebook groups are also great resources to find referrals to local therapists. Park Slope Parents provides a list of active online parent groups from around the country.

Reach out to your insurance provider to determine your family's coverage. Most insurance companies can provide a list of covered children's mental health providers in your area. Then, set up initial consultations and spend time with the therapists to get to know them. "As a parent, I would speak to a few therapists first to get a sense of their demeanor and decide who is a good fit for your child," says Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist with practices in Connecticut and New York.

It is also helpful to know that there are different forms of therapy, such as psychoanalysis, cognitive behavior therapy, or integrative therapy in which the therapist draws from a variety of different approaches. Educate yourself on the different types available so you can get a sense of what feels suitable for your child. "You by no means need to be an expert," says Dr. Emanuele. "But it is helpful to have an understanding of the different types of therapy available." This legwork will help you in choosing a therapist to work with your child.

Remain part of the process

Many parents have taken proactive steps to set up therapy for their children. But it is not just about the child. The parent and the therapist need to work together too. "Building the level of trust between the parent and the therapist is key," says Dr. Emanuele. "Your child is going into therapy talking about personal things that involve your family. You want to feel safe and comfortable with the therapist so that you know your child can feel safe and comfortable with the therapist too." If the parent and the therapist do not have a good rapport, progress can be an uphill battle.

It is crucial to keep yourself in the loop while also respecting your child's privacy. There is a level of confidentiality and trust that the therapist needs to honor. "Kids are particularly sensitive to the thought, 'Can I trust you?'" says Fox. "Kids often think, 'You tell me you are not going to tell my parents about what we discuss in detail, but I am not sure that I believe you.'" With this in mind, parents need to be open to suggestions from the therapist without pushing for details.

Also, check-in with your child but don't ask for specifics. A question such as "is there anything you discussed that you'd like to share with me?" is more effective to show support rather than "tell me what you talked about." For the most part, a child will share when it feels right to them.

Address issues as they happen

"Your child's therapist should describe how therapy will work, create a general idea of the time frame, and develop goals based on a diagnosis," Dr. Emanuele says. If this hasn't happened, ask questions, and stay informed.

Once the therapy is underway, look for signs of progress. Ask yourself: Is there any difference in my child's daily habits? Am I seeing signs of progress in our day-to-day interactions? For children, the sessions should feel more conversational, like it is no big deal. If your child seems rattled, expresses extreme emotion post-therapy, or refuses to attend, take note. "Therapy should not feel like therapy to kids," notes Fox. "Kids should feel that this person is kind, and they understand me."

Unfortunately, sometimes the relationship with the therapist does not work. If your child is saying they don't like therapy, really listen to them. Then ask yourself: As the parent, am I being open enough? Am I sharing enough information with the therapist? Then talk to the therapist. Discuss your perspective and see how they respond to you. "If the therapist is not responding to your questions and concerns in a productive problem-solving manner, that could be a good indicator that it is time to move on," notes Dr. Emanuele. Parents can then seek out another therapist to help their child.

The Bottom Line

If parents notice their child struggling with their mental health, seeking outside help may be necessary. Parents can take a more proactive approach to support their child's therapy and overall mental well-being by searching for a suitable therapist, remaining part of the therapy process, and paying attention to their child's progress. This can make all the difference in their child's treatment.