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Open Channel of Communication, Key to Child's Mental Health


Dr. Chandra Lasley, mental health counselor at Covenant Health's Horizons outpatient clinic, is emphatic about the importance of a week dedicated to bringing awareness to children’s mental health.

“It reminds us that children are important and integral members of society,” she said. “When we think about how we teach our children to be compassionate, resilient, resourceful, we’re really nurturing a population of individuals who can impact or society and by extension, our world, in a positive way.”

Lasley says helping children have a healthy mental outlook starts with open lines of communication, just asking about how they’re doing, how their day is, to show interest in both positive and in challenging experiences.

“The goal is to be present and non-judgmental when you’re communicating with your kids; not the parent-hindsight 20/20, like ‘I made it through, I know what it’s like, let me tell you about it.’ But more in the moment, ‘Let me sit with you and just listen to your experience and understand it,’ because when children have that, they’re more willing to accept that they have emotions, that emotions are healthy and normal, that they are informational about how they feel, and how they’re important in our interacting with other people.”

She said it’s all connected, and by providing that attention early, that opens up a communication channel for children to express themselves and explore their own emotions, which helps with children’s problem solving and developing resilience.

Lasley says neglecting mental health in children risks long-term negative effects such as:

  • not being able to achieve a higher level of education
  • not having the same opportunities for employment
  • lower income
  • more involvement with crime

“Children are just as important as adults and have their own mental health needs, challenges and strengths, so it’s worth it to devote our attention to them for both long-term and short-term wellbeing.”

She says when we think about depression in adults, we think about sadness, being withdrawn, having really low energy. However, this may look different for children and adolescents. Signs to look for in children and adolescents with depression, anxiety, or other mental health needs include:

  • agitation, irritability
  • not doing well in school or suffering academically
  • lack of attention, concentration
  • having trouble with their friends, their relationships
  • trouble communicating with their parents about what’s going on in their daily lives.

“If we see over a period of weeks, a child having trouble expressing anger, or they’re angry all the time, or they’re very fearful, having nightmares, not eating well, those are all some of those yellow or red flags to pay attention to and follow up with,” Lasley said.

In instances where a child can’t or won’t communicate well with parents, search for another adult the child feels is trustworthy. It could be another family member, a church member, a teacher; someone the child is comfortable talking to.

Lasley also suggests being direct in asking about suicidal thoughts to evaluate how serious the child’s concerns are, such as saying:

“I see you’re struggling in school and you’re talking about things not going well for you. You’re also talking about life is not worth living… are you thinking about suicide?”

Lasley thinks asking about suicide is an important part of that conversation, just to see where the kid is at emotionally.

“Maybe they do need to speak with a therapist who specializes in working with kids. Maybe they need more social support, family support. Maybe they need a teacher to advocate for them in school. But ask directly, ‘where are you at with how you’re feeling?’ Don’t be afraid to be direct – once you know the severity of things, you’ll know better where to refer them. So be direct, but non-judgmental,” Lasley said.

“As adults we sometimes forget children are very resilient and can be very creative in their ability to understand. So having that open, non-judgmental caring communication back and forth is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children and adolescents.”

To learn more about the Covenant Horizons clinic and our mental health offerings, click here.

This post is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please seek medical advice from your physician for any related medical condition. If you are in need of a primary care doctor, click here to find one in the Covenant Health network.

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