Taking tests, fledgling romances, annoying siblings—stresses on kids used to seem small and manageable. But the world feels like a tougher place now, even for the young. Anxiety affects 32% of teens, and more than one in 10 have suffered major depressive episodes.
“We’re seeing a dramatic increase in reports of mental health problems, including self-harm and suicide,” says Mark Stein, PhD, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Washington, and director of the Pearl Clinic/ADHD and Related Disorders Program at Seattle Children’s Hospital. It’s enough to make any parent … well, anxious.
But you can make your child’s world feel a little kinder and gentler. Here’s what you should know about the four things that can affect your child’s mental wellbeing—and how to help them navigate these challenges.
Mental Health Influencer #1: Social Media
No matter the platform, social media are exquisitely aimed at kids’ vulnerabilities: longings to fit in, bodies that are changing, and emotions that are all over the place. Not to mention brains primed for instant gratification, adds Dr. Stein.
“Neurologically, the frontal lobes are the last to develop—the executive functions of planning, organizing, and delaying gratification,” he says.
So kids anxiously tally the “likes” on their Instagram posts, obsess over unanswered DMs, or feel insecure swiping through images of toned and tanned peers: In fact, recent research found an association between the hours of social media use and eating disorders.
When kids go online to distract themselves from anxiety or unhappiness, they’re not learning how to handle their emotions. In fact, digital immersion can trigger more mental distress, not less.
“The pain of social media is that it’s public. What can be a negative interaction just between peers is staged out for all to see,” points out New York psychiatrist Aleksandra Krunic, M.D., whose practice focuses on children and adolescents.
A powerful antidote? “Encourage kids to develop real relationships, real friends,” says Dr. Krunic. They can explore their interests with others who share them—in ballet classes, sports leagues, chess clubs, and so on—building confidence and an offline social circle to buffer them from the hazards of social media.
Also, take control of the situation: Limit online time, says Dr. Stein. “It can be hard to regulate, but kids actually thrive with structure. So you say, ‘These are the rules of the house: After homework or chores, you can play video games for an hour. No internet after 9 pm.’” Walk the talk yourself as well, and put away your phone at dinner and during family time.
Since social media are here to stay, help your child be a savvy consumer and recognize digital status-seeking in the form of gossip, snark, and mean comments. “Translate the behavior so they can identify it: ‘This is what they’re doing,’” says Dr. Krunic. That makes it easier for kids to detach from it and protect themselves.
Mental Health Influencer #2: Bullying
“Kids who stand out, or are anxious or shy, tend to be bullied. Anything extreme or different makes them a target,” notes Dr. Stein. Research shows that being bullied raises the risk of developing depression, may alter brain development, and contributes to developing anxiety disorders.
Kids aren’t always forthcoming about bullying, says Dr. Krunic. “They worry parents or teachers will mess it up [and make it worse].”
She says to watch for a shift in your child’s peer group, reluctance to go to school or social events, or a drop-off in academic performance. Address warning signs right away. Assure your child that you'll keep them safe. Talk to teachers and administrators; ask about the school’s anti-bullying policy.
And, as with social media, the stronger your child’s sense of self and social circle are, the less likely it is that bullies are to find traction.
LEARN MORE: Understanding Anxiety Disorders
Mental Health Influencer #3: School
A teacher’s wellbeing can affect their students’ own mental health, and not every teacher will be wonderful, warm, and inspiring.
Consider this: More than 60% of educators report that their work is often or always stressful. Mentally- or physically-taxed teachers might struggle to control their classroom or engage with their students—they might yell a lot or seem bored or apathetic—and that can erode students’ own sense of wellbeing and engagement.
If your child complains about the classroom environment or the teacher, do a reality check with other parents. It might be that it’s just not a good fit, and that’s a life lesson in itself. Not every teacher will be wonderful, warm, and inspiring. Brainstorm solutions with your child—exploring a subject on their own, finding a fun way to tackle a boring project, or moving to a different seat in the classroom.
If it’s not just your child, Dr. Krunic suggests asking the teacher if there’s anything you can do to help, or approaching other parents to split the cost of a tutor.
Then, there’s the lockdown/active shooter drill factor. Unimaginable a generation ago, they are part of the educational landscape now. Most kids take these drills in stride, but they can heighten anxiety, says Dr. Stein.
Talk to your child about the drills and how they make them feel. Then, point out how rare these events are and explain that the drills are designed to protect and prepare kids.
Use the example of fire drills, suggests Dr. Krunic. “They’re uncomfortable, but they’re just a reminder to learn the A-B-Cs of what to do in the situation.”
Mental Health Influencer #4: Home
For many kids, life runs pretty smoothly. But if their parents are working through conflicts, they can feel depressed and anxious—even years later.
Arguments are inevitable—and best done without kids around—but if you can keep your tone level, avoid insults, and even resolve the dispute, you’re actually modeling a healthy interaction for your child.
Even with loving guidance and care, your child may need extra help. Look at how they’re doing academically, socially, and within the family, says Dr. Stein. If there’s a change—in any area—that’s pervasive and has lasted for several weeks, it’s time to reach out.
Check with your pediatrician, who can evaluate your child and suggest next steps and/or recommend a specialist. Maybe a child psychologist—rather than, say, a therapist—is the best choice.
Knowing all this will help you as a parent, build your child’s strengths and resilience now will serve them for years to come.