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 percent of teens, and more than 13 percent have had at least one major depressive episode, according to the National Insitute on Mental Health (NIMH).
“We’re seeing a dramatic increase in reports of mental health problems, including self-harm and suicide,” says Mark A. Stein, PhD, a psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a Genomind Scientific Advisory Board member.
But you can make your child’s world feel a little kinder and gentler. Here’s what you should know about four things that can affect your child’s mental health—and how to help them navigate these challenges.
Mental Health Influencer #1: Social Media
No matter the platform, social media is exquisitely aimed at the vulnerabilities of kids and teens: 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 or views on their posts, obsess over unanswered messages, or feel insecure swiping through images of toned and tanned peers. In fact, there’s an association between the hours of social media use and eating disorders, according to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
When kids go online to distract themselves from anxiety or unhappiness, they’re not learning how to handle their emotions. In many cases, 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,” says Aleksandra Krunic, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Child and Adult Clinical Psychiatry Center in Huntington, New York.
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,” she explains. “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 is 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
Bullying goes well beyond pushing someone in the schoolyard. About 20 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 18 say they’ve been bullied at school, and more than 15 percent say they’ve faced it online.
“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 or 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, and ask about the school’s anti-bullying policy.
Mental Health Influencer #3: School
A teacher’s well-being can affect their students’ own mental health. Consider this: More than 60 percent of educators report that their work is often or always stressful.
Educators who are emotionally or physically taxed might struggle to control their classroom or engage with their students, and that can erode a student’s own sense of well-being, according to a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
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. Brainstorm solutions with your child, such as exploring a subject on their own or finding a fun way to tackle a boring project.
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.
In some cases, the problem may not be with the classroom but with school in general. For example, kids often have to deal with active shooter drills. 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, 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 a reminder to learn what to do in the situation.”
If there are other issues making school difficult for your child, take the time to understand and address them. For example, learning disabilities can make school challenging, and kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may need extra support.
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.
If your child has a mental health condition, know that it’s important to take care of yourself as well. Take steps to help yourself avoid caregiver burnout.
When to Ask for Expert Help
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 child’s pediatrician or primary care doctor, who can evaluate your child and suggest next steps. In some cases, talking to a mental health clinician may be your next move. Check out our parent’s guide to finding good mental healthcare.
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