Children and Mental Health: What to do Now
What could be more important to a mother than her child’s well-being? We see how happy a parent feels when her child is well—and how devastated she is when her child suffers.
Mental imbalances in youth, less obvious than physical ill health, take many parents by surprise—leaving them with the added misery of feelings of inadequacy and guilt on top of their deeply painful concern. When a child does self-harm or harms another, parents are often known to say that they had no idea that things were that bad.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently reported that children and young adults were already facing a mental health crisis before the coronavirus pandemic began:
- One in three high school students report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, indicating a 40% increase from 2009 to 2019.
- In the same period, suicide rates increased by 57% among those aged 10 to 24.
He stated that since 2019, during the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have increased, reflecting “a worsening of issues behind the youth mental health crisis.”
He cited gun violence, climate change, racism and social conflict, and online bullying as prevalent sources of stress. Experts also cite media and peer pressure about appearance as an ongoing stressor—girls especially are tormented by doubts about their image.
“This is a critical issue that we have to do something about now,” he said. “We can’t wait until after the pandemic is over.”
Doing something about it now
For children and teens, growing up can be difficult because of the way the brain develops. It isn’t until one reaches one’s 20s or even 30s that the frontal lobes are fully connected. The frontal lobes are the CEO of the brain—responsible for moral judgement, discrimination, decision making, planning and self-awareness—and can act to reduce impulsive behavior starting in other regions of the brain. Teens’ undeveloped brain function helps explain why they act out in seemingly irrational ways.
Self-esteem, happiness and emotional balance should be the traits that parents, families, education and culture prioritize in the development of children’s mental health. A crisis can be handled—but as a parent, a family, a friend, a community and a society—we must focus on day to day living to prevent these crises from arising.
In education, many elementary schools have adopted brief daily or weekly programs teaching “emotional intelligence.” Children begin to learn how to identify their own feelings, the various optional responses to those feelings, how to be sensitive to the cues and needs of people around them, and how to set healthy boundaries with others.
In community culture, parents and community members can provide volunteer and social opportunities for children through civic organizations, sports and recreational activities, hiking and natural spaces, musical and artistic classes and performance opportunities, and religious activities. Giving children and teenagers a chance to contribute to the community and to feel needed by others helps to provide stability and a sense of belonging.
Social media must maximize platforms that don’t just keep kids busy, but that keep them busy in wholesome inspiring ways. Online engagement is a relatively new way of informing the minds and hearts of young people; we are responsible as a society to monitor the trends of online effectiveness in developing good mental health.
Healthy routine includes appropriate times for eating, resting, and exercise or athletics. It includes making a healthy diet a priority—research shows that a healthy diet nourishes the brain as much as it protects and nourishes the body.
Transcendental Meditation is a key component
Research by neuroscientists has shown that, during the TM practice, the brain produces high-power alpha waves, corresponding to a state of relaxed, blissful wakefulness. This orderly functioning spreads throughout the brain and enlivens the pre-frontal cortex—the seat of the brain’s executive judgment. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology in 2009 showed that university students who learned TM showed increased broadband frontal EEG coherence.
In a previous article on our blog entitled Mysteries of the Teen Mind, we quoted neurologist Dr. Gary Kaplan. His quote is worth repeating here:
“How do we keep our teens from inadvertently hurting themselves, while each has a more or less under-developed prefrontal cortex, lacking strong connections to the rest of the ‘thinking’ brain? There are no medications that are truly effective in curbing impulsivity and risk-taking. Behavioral strategies and education… are inadequate, though we often recommend them.
What is needed is a way to bring the prefrontal cortex ‘online’ with the rest of the cerebral cortex…. I recommend this (TM) technique in particular because it is simple. Adolescents learn it easily. Moreover, it is the only technique I know of that increases coherent prefrontal activity (as measured by EEG). Well-controlled studies demonstrate positive effects on attention, decreasing anxiety and substance abuse after only weeks of practice.”
Building a resilient teenager
Building resilience is an important part of a teenager’s development so they can navigate the ups and downs of life. A resilient teen is better able to bounce back during or after a challenging situation. The TM technique, which can be effortlessly practiced by children, tangibly reduces stress and the damage done by past stressors, creates resilience against future stressors, and develops a flexible and clear mind.
“Meditation has given me security, relief, and tranquility. It has given me the power to conquer and to control my anxiety. Something I never thought I would have been able to achieve. Now, nothing has power over me. Not my past, not fear, and not guilt.”
Reanna Suarez, 8th grade student, Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School.
About the Author
Susan Linden is a mom and a certified teacher of the TM technique with 17 years of experience as a certified school psychologist.