You know your kid best, but remember what kids think and feel “is an internal state”

“Parents are more aware of what’s going on with their kids today,” says Michelle Miller, “But what kids are thinking and feeling is an internal state. What parents see outwardly may be different.”

Miller, who has worked as a mental health provider and in the realm of adolescent mental health for over twenty years, says parents and kids who come to a therapist often take surveys to gauge symptoms. “There’s often a discrepancy,” she says, noting kids often tell a neutral therapist things they would never tell their parents or caregivers.

Studio photo of Michelle Miller on a beige background
Michelle Miller, PhD, LCSW, LCPC

Similarly, what kids see online—from a barrage of “perfect” Instagram photos to cyberbullying to overhearing things at school to fears they have about the relationships around them—wear down kids like they do adults. But unlike adults who tend to develop ways of “tuning out” or recognizing the negative, kids haven’t built up that kind of endurance, training, or understanding of the world around them.

“What parents are looking for are external identifiers like anger, school performance or ‘my kid isn’t obeying rules’,” says Miller. “As parents we look for the cues, so the message to parents is it’s good to look for the clues, but recognize thoughts and feelings are internal.” She says being able to have open conversations is important, even though we know kids aren’t always going to be totally honest with us.

Miller suggests parents:

  • Use car time to talk to kids. It’s usually a quiet and mundane activity that kids can’t easily walk away from. Even showing curiosity can help.
  • Model that it’s okay to feel sad or unhappy. 
  • Don’t try to be too reactive or sound alarmed if and when a child does open up to you.
  • Recognize it’s a big, complicated world. Anxiety, depression, and stress is not at all uncommon. It may seem a generational problem, but these issues were always there. We just understand them better today than twenty or more years ago.
  • Some symptoms of medical problems can manifest as depression, such as a thyroid issue. Don’t be quick to cast off mental health as a “lesser” problem.

Behavioral indicators include sudden outbursts and sudden inward isolation. Likewise, some children and teens may suffer academically, improve, or encounter no academic change at all. 

“Ultimately, you know your kid best, but sometimes a professional can help,” says Miller, “Even if it’s just for a wellness check.”

Wellness checks are increasingly popular in primary care clinics. “So even if you don’t think you need a therapist”, says Miller, “A wellness check is a good place to start.” This also helps keep costs low for families with little or no insurance coverage. 

Remember caregivers are givers

Miller also encourages caregivers, who by nature are givers, to embrace self-care. That term comes with many connotations, but as Miller says, “It doesn’t matter what you choose to do so long as it replenishes you.” That might include reading fifteen minutes before bed, watching a movie, taking a walk, or writing a letter to a friend or family member.

“Self-care is a personal thing. As our days go by faster, moms end up suffering because moms are trained to take care of everything. We just need to be able to put something in our cup. When our cup is empty, and we have an expectation to do something, the result is bad.” Or, as Miller puts another way, “It’s like writing checks all day long. The same thing that happens with our checking account happens to our mental health. We need to make deposits.”

Interested in reading more?

Read more from our interview with Michelle Miller. “No, telehealth is not a “lesser” therapy—it works shockingly well”.

“The lasting ripples of the pandemic likely won’t be fully understood for a generation. But there are things we can prepare for and understand about the situation today that can help kids cope and work through depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.”

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