Mental illnesses and emotional disorders can be difficult to understand, especially for children who are still learning to identify and understand their emotions. How can parents and leaders help their children to become resilient and learn to cope with difficult emotional issues?
The Mormon Channel recently released a video in their "Gospel Solutions for Families" series about helping children who might be suffering from anxiety or depression. Amy Iverson interviewed Sister Carol F. McConkie, First Counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, and Sister Heather Nelson, a licensed clinical social worker.
Here are some of their tips for helping children suffering from some form of mental illness or emotional disorder:
1. Recognize when your child’s emotions and behaviors are outside of normal feelings of sadness or nervousness.
If your child is consistently struggling to function normally, this is an indication that some kind of intervention, such as counseling, may be necessary. Typical warning signs might include difficulties going to school, a lack of desire to attend activities or play with friends, and an increased amount of time spent alone.
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2. Acknowledge and work through your own emotional issues.
“We all have moments when we feel depressed or over-anxious,” said Sister McConkie. “When that happens, it’s a lesson for us to help understand our children better, as well as help us learn the skills to overcome [our emotional challenges].”
3. Consistently talk about feelings and emotions with your children.
We can help children to better understand and express their feelings by frequently talking about emotions. This will equip them with the vocabulary they need to identify and express their feelings. These conversations don’t have to be formal or related to your child’s emotions. Sister Nelson suggests sometimes bringing up the topic while reading stories with your kids—you could ask them, “How do you think [this character] is feeling? What do you think is going on with them?”
4. Don’t overreact if your child shares difficult emotions with you.
Listen to your children with calmness and patience to help them feel safe. Overreacting or responding with your own anxiety can create a barrier or lack of trust that may prevent your child from opening up in the future.
5. Maintain an open line of communication with your children.
Encourage your kids to tell you about their daily lives so they feel comfortable talking with you. Don’t wait until a moment of crisis to try to connect with your child.
6. Encourage children to “un-invite” anxiety and depression.
Sister Nelson shared, “Help them understand that they have to ‘un-invite’ depression [or anxiety] by doing . . . the opposite of what it’s telling [them] to do.”
You can help your child to move through feelings of anxiety or depression by inviting them to join you in an activity, such as going outside together for a walk.
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7. Remind them of their divine identity and encourage them to turn to the Savior.
The scriptures tell us that the Savior was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (see Isaiah 53:3). Remind your children that the Savior knows what they’re going through and that they have a Heavenly Father who loves them.
8. Seek professional help if your child is consistently struggling to function normally.
Sister Nelson suggests that parents look for a therapist who is a “good fit”—someone who makes your child feel comfortable and safe. You can find a therapist through LDS Family Services or by asking other parents for recommendations.
9. Remind them they aren’t alone.
After researching how often words like “anxiety” or “depressed” appear in the scriptures, Sister McConkie shared, “I recognized how frequently this is a challenge for great men of God, for prophets and apostles. . . . Great people have gone before who have had these same experiences, who have been able to overcome, and not only that, but rise up and become great people.”
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10. Validate their worries and concerns.
Recognize when your child exhibits unnecessary worries, such as worrying about something that isn't their responsibility to worry about. Empathize with them and validate their emotions. Remind them that some worries may be unlikely to happen, but help them to think about how they could respond if their worries were realized.
11. Coach them in confronting fears.
Help them learn how to face their fears and calm themselves as they work through anxiety. These are important life skills they will need to practice throughout their lives. You can help guide and support them in learning these essential skills.
12. Balance enforcing rules with having patience.
“Having rules is actually a form of love,” said Sister Nelson. “In the world, when there’s chaos, everything feels out of control for a little kid . . . even [for] teenagers.” Setting rules and expectations, and following through with consequences, gives your child a sense of structure and consistency.
13. Make sure your home environment is “a place of refuge.”
"As you center your home on the Savior, it will naturally become a refuge not only to your own family but also to friends who live in more difficult circumstances.
"One of the greatest blessings we can offer to the world is the power of a Christ-centered home where the gospel is taught, covenants are kept, and love abounds" (Elder Richard G. Scott, "For Peace at Home," April 2013 General Conference).
The outside world is often dissonant with gospel standards, a fact that can be unsettling for a child. It is important for the home to be in harmony with gospel standards to create an environment of absolute love and safety.
14. Recognize and address your own feelings of shame or inadequacy.
It can be easy to feel responsible for your child’s experiences, but it is important to acknowledge his or her agency. Avoid negative self-talk such as, “I’m a bad parent,” or “this is my fault.” Take care of yourself so you can have the resiliency and energy to effectively help your child.
15. Strive to maintain your family’s basic spiritual and physical health.
Consistently pray, study the scriptures and the words of modern prophets, and attend church together as a family. Promote a healthy lifestyle in the home to help your family more effectively deal with emotional issues. In the October 2013 conference talk, "Like a Broken Vessel," Elder Holland said:
"In preventing illness whenever possible, watch for the stress indicators in yourself and in others you may be able to help. As with your automobile, be alert to rising temperatures, excessive speed, or a tank low on fuel. When you face “depletion depression,” make the requisite adjustments. Fatigue is the common enemy of us all—so slow down, rest up, replenish, and refill."
16. Keep an eternal perspective.
“I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind. What a thrilling moment that will be!" (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, "Like a Broken Vessel," October 2013 General Conference)
Remembering the divine identity of children—and of ourselves—helps us to have hope for the future and to show increased love, patience, and understanding.
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