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Childhood isn’t always a carefree time. School-age children, adolescents and teens can feel stress and anxiety, too. The recent pandemic has made things worse for many children. One study found that nearly one-third of high schoolers felt more unhappy or depressed than normal in the spring of 2020. Even as restrictions have waned, the toll on kids’ mental health remains.

When it comes to your child’s mental wellness, a proactive approach is better than a reactive one. Instead of waiting for a problem or challenge to arise, open the door to regular communication with your child about their mental health.

“Try to have these conversations frequently, but naturally,” says Chris Lynch, PhD, a psychologist at Atlantic Health System. “Any opportunity to talk about mental health is a good one.”

Here are a few tips to get that conversation started:

Connect at dinner
Conversations around the table are a great time to get a better idea of what’s happening in your child’s life – including the great things they experienced during the day or anything that may be causing them stress, like an upcoming test or try out.

Have one-on-one time
Carve time out in your schedule for alone time with your child. Schedule a mani-pedi or go to a local sporting event. It’s a great time to connect and let your child know you’re available.

Be an active listener
Once you start a conversation, resist the urge to jump in with an opinion or solution until they finish talking. Instead, just listen. Then, repeat and rephrase what you heard to show you understood.

Normalize mental wellness
Let your children see you taking care of your own mental health. Be open (in an age-appropriate way) about the things you do when you’re stressed or anxious.

How to support your child
Children and teens can show different signs of stress, anxiety and depression. The most important thing you can do as a parent is to trust your gut.

“Parents know their children best,” says Stephanie Levine, MD, adolescent medicine physician at Atlantic Health System. “If you think something is happening with your child, talk to them about it. Involve their pediatrician if necessary.”

Your child’s doctor can answer questions, share the latest evidence-based recommendations and share resources available in the community. If you think your child is a danger to themselves or others, please call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency department.