First: How to take care of your child’s mental health

“Mom, I don’t want to go to school today. I’m not good at writing letters. Some of my friends are better than me,” my almost 4-year-old son told me, tears in his eyes. eyes. It was the first time he told me he didn’t want to go to kindergarten. It was certainly the first time he revealed anxiety about what others thought of him or his abilities.

“Honey, you’re still learning to write letters. You’re learning things so well! Maybe we can write letters together this afternoon. Would you like to practice letters with me?” I gave her a big hug hoping to stir up some excitement. He nodded slowly, put on his backpack and headed for the door.

This scenario stuck with me all day. Honestly, I wasn’t concerned about his ability to write letters. He is almost 4 years old and is smart and curious. I was worried about his mental health. Did other children make fun of his handwriting? Did teachers openly compare students’ handwriting to encourage improvement? Or did he compare himself to his classmates on his own? Was it going to affect his development and his confidence in other areas?

A Pew research report published in January 2023 found that parents are more concerned about their child’s mental health than other previously common factors. Four in 10 American parents with children under 18 say they are “extremely” or “very worried” that their children may experience anxiety or depression at some point. These articles went beyond parents’ concerns about certain physical threats to their children, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, teenage pregnancies, and trouble with the police. (It should be noted that the report indicates that mothers are more likely than fathers to worry about most of these things by significant margins.)

The rise in concerns about mental health is not surprising. We are just on the other side of a global pandemic, and many reports reveal a mental crisis among young people.

(READ MORE: Children’s mental health crisis is a national emergency, experts say)

Here are some ways to positively influence and care for your child’s mental health:

› Provide a safe and loving environment. Set reasonable expectations for your child based on their age and development. This includes their to-do list, how they handle change, and how they process their emotions. Praise your child for things he does well and tell him regularly that you love him.

› Use open communication and ask questions. If you notice your child withdrawing or thinking deeply, ask, “What are you thinking? or “How are you feeling?” This will encourage them to talk to you about things they may be struggling with or dealing with internally. Even if they don’t respond to you immediately, the fact that you opened the door makes them more likely to come to you when they’re ready to talk.

› Break down problematic thoughts together. If your child begins to share thoughts of anxiety or depression, break those thoughts down together and help bring them back to reality. Therapists use the ABC model during cognitive behavioral therapy, which uses techniques to stop negative cycles by making problems more manageable. It is a useful tool that you can use alone or with your child. Here’s how it works.

A: What is the adversity or activation event that caused the thought? (For example: when it was time to go to school, my son became anxious and didn’t want to leave the house.)

B: What are the beliefs around this event? (My son believed that his ability to write letters was not as good as his classmates, and therefore HE was not as good as his classmates.)

C: What are the positive and negative consequences of these beliefs? (Believing his handwriting was bad kept my son from wanting to go to school and learn. Staying home would keep him from seeing his friends, playing games, and continuing to learn new things, all the things that he really wanted to do and be a part of.)

(READ MORE: Parkridge Valley uses recreation as a form of therapy for children and teens)

All in all, the greatest gift you can give to your child’s mental health is a deeply connected relationship. Remember that you know your child better than anyone. If you are deeply concerned about your child’s mental health, take the free parent screening at to see if professional help may be needed.

Lauren Hall is President and CEO of First Things First, a nonprofit family advocacy organization. Email her at [email protected]

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