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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, global conflicts, and an inflated economy, families have been going through a lot lately.
Children are no exception.
The US is facing an “urgent public health issue” among youth, and it’s not the typical stomach bug or cough usually associated with children – it’s their mental health.
In honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re highlighting the reasons elementary and middle school-age children worry, how often they worry, and their coping mechanisms, according to a recent report by Nemours KidsHealth.
We’ll also touch on what parents can do to help their children through worrisome times.
Why Do Children Worry?
Of the 504 children between ages 9 and 13 who responded to the Nemours survey, worries centered around school (64%) and friendships (41%).
Other common worries were about the health of people they love (35%), their family members or relatives (33%), and the way they look (31%). Girls (39%) were more likely than boys (24%) to report being worried about their looks, according to the report.
How Often Are Children Worrying?
37% of children worry once a week or more, with girls being more likely to worry than boys.
Age may play a factor in likelihood of worrying, as 13-year-olds (48%) are more likely than 9-year-olds (22%) to report feeling like they will never stop worrying.
Some children (33%) feel like they worry more than most kids their age, and nearly a quarter of children feel as though no one usually notices when they worry (23%), according to the Nemours report.
How Are Children Affected by Worrying and How Do They Cope?
Kids react to worrying in a variety of ways.
Children most commonly report feeling distracted or unable to focus (40%), feeling sad or miserable (36%), and not wanting to talk to anyone (34%), according to the Nemours report.
Commonly reported ways of coping with worrisome feelings include using technology, talking to someone, and doing something creative.
More than 9 in 10 children who talk to someone or do something creative — like listen to or play music, draw, paint, etc. — when they are worried say it makes them feel better.
Of the children who use technology when they are worried, 85% prefer playing video games, 72% prefer TV, and 59% prefer social media.
How to Support a Worrying Child
While most children turn to parents when they worry (67%), older children (ages 12-13) are more likely to turn to friends first, according to the Nemours report.
Despite parents being the preferred choice overall, more than half of children (53%) think adults don’t understand what they worry about.
How can parents help their worried children feel heard?
Here are a few tips, according to the report:
- Ask your child what’s on their mind and help them label emotions they’re feeling. If they don’t have a lot to say, that’s OK. Let them know you’re there to help when they need you.
- Listen attentively and give your child time to put their thoughts into words. Ask questions and validate your child’s feelings to let them know you’re engaged in the conversation.
- Avoid saying things like, “There’s nothing to worry about.” This can invalidate your child’s feelings and contribute to them being less confident in you as a resource.
- Share your life experience! Once your child has confided in you, ask if they’d like some advice or help coping with or solving the issue they are worried about. Uplift their confidence by supporting their ideas on how to move forward.
- But remember, don’t be too quick to give advice. Your child may just want a listening ear.
Of course, some children may worry more than others and their feelings may change as they age.
If your child’s worrisome feelings begin to affect their overall happiness, performance at school, and eating and sleeping habits, you may talk with your child’s doctor.
Learn more about supporting a worried child.
Latino Children May Worry More
Latino children especially struggle with mental health, with 22% of Latino youth having depressive symptoms.
“That is higher than any group besides Native American youth,” according to a Salud America! research review.
These mental health struggles may stem from stressful challenges Latino children face that other children might not, such as systemic racism and discrimination, poverty, unstable housing, and food insecurity.
Over half of US Latino and Black children suffer at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as abuse, divorce, or parental incarceration, according to Child Trends. ACEs impact a child’s brain, body, behavior, and school performance and can spike the lifetime risk for heart disease, cancer, suicide, substance use disorder, and more.
Latinos were also one of the groups hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, causing many children to lose their loved ones.
Immigration status can place additional stress on Latino children. If they or family members are undocumented, children may have a fear of deportation or detainment.
Cheryl Aguilar, a clinical social worker and founding director at the Hope Center for Wellness in Washington, D.C., helped co-author a 10-step manual to help DACA recipients heal from anxiety related to their immigration status.
“When it comes to the health of immigrant youth and the health of immigrants, we have to really work on understanding how people may experience situations with being an immigrant in a new country,” Aguilar said. “What are some of the factors that lead to their distress? What are some of the things that we can do as a community to alleviate those factors?”
Difficulty Accessing Mental Healthcare
Even if a Latino child expresses their struggles, getting mental healthcare is generally challenging for everyone right now given the shortage of mental health providers, especially those who can speak Spanish and understand the Latino culture.
Lack of access to affordable health insurance and the strong stigma associated with mental health in the Latino community can also deter Latino children from getting help.
“For the Latinx/Hispanic community, mental health and mental illness are often stigmatized topics resulting in prolonged suffering in silence,” according to Mental Health America.
For these reasons, Latino youth are less likely to use mental healthcare services (8%) compared to their white counterparts (14%).
Aguilar encourages diversity and cultural competence in mental health care.
“We need a lot more mental health providers. This is a call to action to every young person who’s considering going to college or any young person in middle school or high school thinking about their next career,” Aguilar said.
“Being a mental health professional is a very fulfilling profession. We’re able to help people beyond our wildest dreams. We need you and we certainly need people who are bilingual and multilingual and who understand the communities that we’re serving.”
Addressing the Mental Health Crisis in Latinos and All People
America’s mental health crisis is well documented in people of all ages and backgrounds.
One of the best ways to alleviate the negative impacts of this crisis is to speak more openly about mental health – especially in the Latino community – to decrease stigma.
“People tend to associate mental health with cosa de locos, I’m crazy, or there’s something wrong with me. It’s so important to normalize the experience,” said Dr. Luz Garcini, psychologist and epidemiologist at UT Health San Antonio.
Having more bilingual and culturally relevant mental health resources and providers is also important for Latinos. These bilingual materials from National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) can help Latinos learn about mental health treatment.
We can also help children who witness traumatic events, like domestic violence or murder.
They face a burden of stress and trauma that can interfere with their behavior and grades – and schools often aren’t even aware there’s an issue.
Download the free Salud America! “Handle With Care Action Pack.”
The Action Pack helps police, school, and mental healthcare leaders start the Handle with Care program, in which police notify schools when they encounter children at a traumatic scene, so schools can provide support right away, even if school is out for summer.
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