Guarding our children’s mental health

Rise of mental health issues in children

Did you know that mental health diagnoses among U.S. children increased 30% between 2011 and 2017 alone?

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That is a scary statistic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of children in the U.S. have a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder.

Signs and symptoms of mental health issues in children

Our kids are suffering. Often silently, or acting out in ways that we don’t traditionally associated with mental health issues–as symptoms can present differently for children.

The Mayo Clinic lists the following as some symptoms to look for when thinking about your child’s mental health.

  • Feelings of sadness that lasts more than two weeks
  • Mood swings that cause problems at home or in school
  • Feelings of overwhelming fear for no real reason
  • Drastic changes in behavior or expressions of violence
  • Difficulty sitting still or trouble focusing on a task
  • Poor academic performance
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches

Our perceived safety

Dr. Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College, and author of one of my absolute favorite books, Free to Learn (which should be on your must read list), explains that there are currently “five to eight times as many high school and college students who meet the criteria for a diagnosis of major depression or anxiety.”

This increase is significant. But we can do something to change the course.

I often hear parents arguing that things just aren’t as safe as they used to be. But that’s not true. We likely perceive that due to our unprecedented access to news via television and the internet. Where fear mongering headlines come at us from every angle. It’s absolutely understandable that we begin to believe that we are less safe.

But the fact is, statistically our world has not gotten more dangerous.

Why the decline in children's mental health?

Gray argues that the rise in mental health issues directly correlates with the decline in free and unstructured play, as well as with the rise of the amount of time kids spend in school and on academic work.

We know that play is how children learn to solve their own problems, where they begin to develop a sense of control of their bodies and their lives, and when they develop an understanding of their own personal interests. Play is also where children are motivated by intrinsic and self-directed goals.

Kids now are spending more and more time in areas that are directed by adults. More and more time in settings where everything they do is judged, graded, calculated, timed, punished or rewarded and where adults are seemingly responsible for handling every task, keeping them entertained and holding their hand every step of the way.

This, according to Gray, is one of the main reasons for the rise in mental health issues among children.

How can we make a change?

Think about your own views about play? What does it mean to you? How do you interact with your child when they are playing? Is there a way you can let go and allow for more unstructured play?

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Do you often find yourself “hovering” or playing “with” your child? Even with toys you don’t personally enjoy?
  • Do you find yourself narrating what your child is doing? Or talking to them about what they are doing while they are in the process of doing it?
  • Do you find yourself jumping in to show them how to do something?
  • Do you have a variety of open ended toys available for your child to play with? (The goal for a toy is 10% toy and 90% child)
  • Do you let your child play without your direct supervision?
  • How long is your child able to play independently? Do you wish they would play more independently or for longer stretches of time?

Placing more value on play

If we value our children’s mental health, then we need to work harder as a society, and as individuals, to provide children more opportunities to participate in REAL play.

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