Being a new mom in the midst of a pandemic made me more self-aware when it comes to my mental health. It took me a while, but I finally opened up about my struggles with mental health as a new mom just a few months ago here, and it was encouraging to receive an outpouring of support from loved ones and even readers who were touched by my blog post.
As I learn to cope with my own mental health issues, a new source of anxiety has been creeping up on me: How do I protect my child’s own mental health as she grows and develops (oh so fast!)? Will she also suffer from anxiety and loneliness like I did growing up? I was bullied from elementary to high school, and if I wasn’t too busy earning a bachelor’s degree and keeping my grades up for my scholarship, I probably would have been bothered by bullies in college, too. I often wondered why I never seemed to belong, and but I never came to the point where I felt the need to act on destructive thoughts or surrender to hopelessness because I always had my parents’ support, along with that of a few treasured high school and college friends.
My family at our wedding
Inquirer.net and Globe’s #StartANewDay: Let’s Talk About Mental Health webinar last Friday, October 2, couldn’t have been more timely, as it talked about the family’s role in one’s mental well-being. As we find ourselves at home more, it’s important to turn our homes into safe spaces for mental health. Speakers Dr. Anna Tuazon, a clinical psychologist for children and families, and Jean Goulbourn, founder of the Hopeline Project and the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation, along with mental health advocates Ari Verzosa and Iza Calzado, discussed how the family can build a support system for loved ones who experience mental health issues, as well as how and where to seek help.
It was pointed out in the seminar that kids these days are going through a lot of mental health challenges, too, what with online education and not being able to go out and spend time with their friends. According to Ms. Goulbourn, in 2019, Hopeline got 30-40 calls per day, which in 2020 increased to 72-148 calls per day, at least 13% of which are from adolescents 12-19 or even as young as 9 or 10. She says young kids have nowhere to go because there’s no school, and guidance counselors are too few to handle many kids and are underpaid. In 2019, the main reason for calling Hopeline among 14-38-year-olds is relationship problems, often romantic love, but in 2020, the number one reason is family problems and violence, what with everyone stranded in homes due to lockdowns, as drug and alcohol abuse are on the rise.
I want to make sure I also know how to support my child’s mental wellbeing growing up, which is why I tuned in intently and took detailed notes, especially from Dr. Tuazon’s presentation on “Wellbeing for the Family: Raising Resilient and Emotionally Healthy Children.” I decided to share here what I learned, not only for my own future reference, but also to help parents and anyone who has a family member suffering from mental health issues that they want to support as best as they possibly can.
A firm and supportive parenting style is recommended.
One of my favorite takeaways from the webinar is how an authoritative parenting style is considered the most balanced and healthy. Parents can’t be overly supportive or demand too much of their kids without providing structure. The relationship should be reciprocal, responsive, and high in bidirectional communication. Culture is a factor, too (especially among Asians, where authoritarian parenting is the norm), however, so as long as parents are not being neglectful and uninvolved or overindulgent and low in control, a different parenting style can still work. Structure (rules) is important, as it promotes independence.
Positive parenting strategies should be used, and this also means refraining from physical punishment. Parents should avoid being punitive or sanction-oriented. At the same time, parents must be consistent in enforcing rules. Being strict is okay, as long as it’s consistent.
A healthy relationship with at least one parent or close adult (teacher, neighbor, tita, mentor) can help children, says Dr. Tuazon.
Dynamic parenting is key.
Learning is lifelong, both for child and parent! According to Dr. Tuazon, parents must accept and embrace that parenting rules change as the child changes and grows, so they must have flexible, co-creative, and collaborative rules and be adaptable.
Parents must give the child a seat at the table and increase her sense of control and responsibility, so it develops her ability to act independently. An open line of communication at home between children and parents must be prioritized as a way to establish safety, security, and support. Parents must set up a cultural environment where emotions can be expressed, even the bad/negative ones (i.e. I hate you, I’m mad, I’m upset).
Children’s developmental needs (sensormotor, cognitive, language, socioemotional needs) must be acknowledged and validated, while understanding that individual differences exist. Activities must be structured for cooperation, not just competition.
Observe for red flags.
Children manifest depression in different ways, so it’s important to observe any changes. Mr. Verzosa advises parents to look out for what their children are doing that they don’t usually do. Parents should listen twice as much as they talk. Listen to words they use, especially if it involves “Pagod na ako. Hindi ko na kaya. (I’m tired. I can’t handle this any longer.)”
Dr. Tuazon also warns parents that children will not say they are sad. They’ll express it by complaining of body pains (somatized symptoms like stomachache, headache, fatigue, lower immune system); through grouchiness, anger, irritability, tantrums; or even stronger dependence on video games (which may be a sign or form of self-medication to deal with the problem, not the cause of the problem).
The biggest red flags are hopelessness (when one starts to lose hope) and helplessness (when one feels nothing can be done to solve the problem).
Behavioral red flags include poor impulse-control, inability to sleep or disturbed sleep, restlessness, poor grooming and hygiene, and being lethargic and having low energy.
Cognitive red flags include thoughts of death and dying, thoughts of hurting oneself or others, hallucinations, distorted beliefs and thinking, poor attention and concentration, memory problems, decision-making problems, and poor judgment.
Help manage triggers and practice coping skills.
It’s important for parents to get to know their children and even their friends. This will help in identifying and managing triggers for mental health issues, which include topics, peers, tasks, or parents’ own behaviors. If triggers are unnecessary, avoid them or find alternatives. However, if they cannot be avoided (i.e. schoolwork/work stress), help manage them by practicing coping strategies.
According to Dr. Tuazon, it’s a misconception that to be well is to be happy all the time and problem-free. What’s more important is how people cope with stressors and frustrations. Coping skills must be learned, practiced, and mastered from childhood to adulthood. These skills include adaptability and flexibility; ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty; ability to tolerate frustration and distress; and ability to accept and express a wide range emotions. They must understand that when things are hard, it’s an opportunity to learn, it’s not that something is wrong with them or everything is going wrong
Both Dr. Tuazon and Ms. Goulbourn recommend using the power of play and a playful, curious attitude. According to Dr. Tuazon, play is the best way to learn and teach, making learning coping skills fun. Ms. Goulbourn also attests that in play is when kids reveal how they truly feel.
Parents must encourage healthy ways of coping with stressors, like work or school stress, by motivating and modeling the healthy behavior.
Parents shouldn’t just say it, they must do it. According to Dr. Tuazon, this includes expression of feelings. Show children how to deal with anxiety, and that it’s okay to talk about feelings. Knowing how to validate is also important. You can validate even if you don’t agree with a thought, by saying that something makes sense when they say/feel something. (EXCEPT if it’s a suicidal urge.)
Parents must emphasize strengths and affirm the value of hard work instead of focusing on outcomes. They must be radically accepting of vulnerabilities and strengths. Set kids up for success by keeping to realistic and feasible goals, and collaborate with the child on goal-setting, recognizing that there are many paths that lead to the same goal (i.e. it’s not just med school or law school that would lead to happiness). Having a sense of purpose or future—which is not limited to career, college, or education, it can also be special interests and hobbies—helps promote resilience.
Maintaining mental wellbeing also involves eating well, sleeping well, and having fun. Being deprived of proper nutrition, sleep, and time to relax and unwind can lead to mental health issues.
The earlier, the better when it comes to seeking professional help.
Go to a professional before a crisis starts. You don’t need a disorder or diagnosis to get help. If there’s change from the baseline (meaning, a significant change from how the child used to behave) and you can no longer talk it out as a family, go and ask for professional help. If a family member is reluctant to seek help for a problem, family members can be the one to go for consultation so they know how to give help.
If you or any member of your family would ever need help, here are the available mental health helpline numbers you may get in touch with 24/7:
HOPELINE: 2919 (toll free for Globe/TM subscribers), 8804 4673, and 0917 5584673 (First responders assess voice and details shared by the caller, who is then directed to 5 doctors if a more serious problem is detected.)
National Center for Mental Health: 0917-899-USAP (8727) or 0917-989-USAP (8727)
UP Diliman PsycServ: Text or Viber 0906-374-3466 or 0916-757-3157 to schedule free telepsychotherapy
KonsultaMD: 78990 on mobile, (02) 778988000 on landline (toll free for Globe/TM subscribers), or download the mobile app on Google Play Store and Apple App Store
Philippine Mental Health Association (PMHA): 0917-565-2036 for Clinical and Intervention Services Dept.
To find comfort and inspiration, as well as take a break from the negativity, join the Hope Bank Facebook community and see messages of hope and inspiration everyday.