SickKids experts share their tips and strategies for supporting resiliency in children and youth
For Children’s Mental Health Week, Dr. Stella Dentakos, a clinical psychologist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), alongside Ruth Masliyah, a social worker at SickKids, and Jennifer Bassin, the Professional Practice Lead for the Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Program at SickKids, share their insights, strategies and tips for parents and caregivers to support the mental wellbeing and foster resiliency of their children and youth.
While families may have been exposed to more stress, anxiety and uncertainty over the past two years, there are strategies that parents and caregivers can use to help their children successfully manage and cope with mental health concerns.
Not bouncing back, but ‘bouncing with’
Stress responses to stressful events are normal for anyone, including children and youth, explains Dentakos. For Dentakos, resiliency is about much more than ‘bouncing back’ from adversity or a stressor. Resiliency, she says, is the capacity to navigate and adapt to a stressor, which she calls ‘bouncing with.’
“Whenever we face adversity, we are changed or impacted by it. Whether it’s a new context we find ourselves in, or because our kids have developmentally grown, things will be different. To be able to label and validate what you're feeling, and based on that, to then incorporate adaptive strategies to successfully navigate the stressor, that’s resiliency.”
To support resiliency and ‘bouncing with,’ Dentakos offers some simple strategies:
- Label and validate feelings: Parents and caregivers can take the “validation shortcut” by replacing ‘but’ with ‘because’ when talking to their children about how they’re feeling. “Instead of saying to kids, ‘you’re feeling sad, but you’re strong and you’ll get over it,’ you can say, ‘you’re feeling sad because I know this was important to you.’ Labelling and validating our child’s experience can be incredibly soothing, comforting and settling. Once this happens, we can then engage in problem-solving and strategies to cope.”
- Balance uncertainties with certainty: “You can say to your kids, ‘I don’t know when this will end, but I know we can get through it together.’ Focus on what is under our control, whether that is establishing new routines, going outside for some sunlight, getting some exercise or creating moments for connection.”
- Empower them to seek support: “Make the number for resources like Kids Help Phone readily available, whether you put it into your kid’s cellphone, if they have one, or leaving it in an obvious place on the fridge, for example.”
Know how to identify anxiety and depression symptoms in children and youth
Understanding how children and youth display their emotions is important to know what is ‘normal,’ and at what point additional support may be needed, according to Masliyah.
Younger children and older children and teenagers will show symptoms of anxiety and depression in different ways, she explains.
When it’s time to seek assistance can differ from child to child but here are some signs to look for:
- Physical symptoms may suddenly appear: “Younger children don’t always know how to verbalize their worries. They may talk about physical discomforts like headaches and stomachaches, or may show changes in appetite and sleep. They might act out, refuse to do things or could be extra clingy with their caregivers.”
- Disruptions in typical routines: Older children and teenagers may also refuse to do activities, procrastinate, or develop changes in appetite and sleep as well as academic performance. “Kids who typically excel in school might not do as well because their brains are so full of worried thoughts that they can’t concentrate on school,” Masliyah says.
- Interests may begin to change: Depression, meanwhile, may extend to difficulty in daily life and is typically characterized by extreme sadness and irritability, social withdrawal, and a loss of enjoyment in usual activities for more than two weeks.
While she says parents and caregivers can try to contextualize any changes they see in their child, she recommends that they check in with their child’s school or paediatrician or family physician, adding that parents and caregivers should not hesitate to seek help if they feel their child needs it.
Model your emotions
One of the best tools parents and caregivers have at their disposal to help their children build resiliency is modelling emotions and coping strategies, says Bassin. Parents and caregivers can demonstrate this by openly talking about their own happy, uncomfortable or tough emotions, and how they make them feel.
“Adults play a pivotal role in emotional development. Though we can’t avoid kids feeling stressed, we can help them express their feelings,” Bassin says.
Encouraging children and youth to open up and talk about their emotions may require different approaches:
- Play can help build life skills: “Unstructured play provides younger children in particular with the ability to develop life skills like problem solving, regulation, self control, emotional skills, conflict, empathy and compassionate understanding.” Bassin explains that playtime can be a benefit to stress relief for children and a way for children to work through stressful times and express their feelings.
- Make conversation ‘pressure free’: For older children and teenagers, going for a walk or a drive can offer opportunities to open up about feelings. “It’s a great space to have tough conversations because you’re not looking at each other and you don’t have the added pressure of being face-to-face,” she says.
- Think about emotions like air in a balloon: Bassin uses the analogy of keeping negative emotions inside like filling up the air in a balloon. When a balloon keeps getting filled with no opportunities to let any of the air out, or to express tough emotions, eventually the balloon will pop. “Sometimes the big temper tantrums in kids of any age will come because they had too many feelings they weren’t getting out, so their balloon popped,” Bassin says. Parents and caregivers can also use the balloon analogy to talk about their own emotions and can help children release the air in their balloons by talking about their feelings, or expressing themselves through art or play.
“Resilience comes from knowing it’s ok to express feelings. Emotions are vast and can be confusing. As parents and caregivers, it’s our job to identify and help them express their emotions and help get their feelings out in healthy ways.”
Additional resources about mental health and mental wellbeing for children and youth are available through AboutKidsHealth for caregivers and teenagers, Kids Help Phone, Children’s Mental Health Ontario and Help Ahead.
If you or your child need urgent mental health support, reach out to speak with a trusted adult, seek help from a community mental health centre or contact Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or text TALK to 686868 to chat with a volunteer Crisis Responder 24/7. If it is an emergency, immediately visit your local emergency department or call 911.