Is the ongoing pandemic affecting your child's mental health?

As we are entering the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're seeing the impact of this collective trauma on our mental health. Adolescents have been hit particularly hard, resulting in a national mental health crisis.

There have been alarming spikes in attempted suicides in the past two years for children age 12-17, both local and nationally. You may be surprised to know that while teenage girls more frequently attempt suicide, young boys are more successful in their attempts.

I am often asked by parents and caregivers — What are the red flags we should watch out for?

My reply is this: You know your child best. Listen to your gut. You can usually feel when something is off or different.

While moodiness and sadness for a few days at a time can be normal, hopelessness, anxiety, anger and frustration over an extended period of time that gets in the way of daily activities should signal concern.

Other signs of mental health issues include:

• Prolonged periods of tearfulness.

• Withdrawal from activities they once loved.

• Sleeping too much or not enough.

• Loss of relationships.

• Little or no energy.

• Difficulty concentrating.

• Issues at school.

• Increased irritability and anger.

Another frequent question I hear from parents is — Will talking to my teen about suicide plant the idea in their head?

Studies show the answer is no. In fact, mental health professionals encourage parents to be open and honest if they suspect their child is struggling. It can be especially important to address this if your teenager is experiencing recent major life changes, rejection, relationship issues, family problems or struggles at school.

If you are noticing troubling signs, speak up. Don't be afraid to use the words “suicide” and/or “self-harm” if you are fearful your teen's behavior warrants it. For some, encouraging with love and concern may help them open up, even if they act annoyed or don't immediately share their feelings. Persistence will show you care and leave the door open for future conversations.

Here are some ways to approach a conversation with your teen:

• I notice you have been more withdrawn/upset/angry/sad lately. What's going on?

• Do you want me to just listen, or do you want me to help with figuring out solutions?

• Do you ever have any thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself or wishing you were dead?

• You know how much I love you. Let's talk about it, and we will get through this together.

Other helpful tips I always recommend:

• Use the language and words your teen uses.

• Don't make assumptions; ask for clarification.

• Acknowledge and validate their emotions.

• Allow the space for silence so they have time to respond, and you have time to reflect.

If your teen is suicidal, seek help immediately by taking them to your local emergency department. For further help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-TALK (273-8255).

I encourage all parents to learn about the warning signs, communication strategies and resources available during this mental health crisis and to involve your child's pediatrician or primary health care provider, as well.

• Children's health is a continuing series. Dr. Trang Pham-Smith is a licensed clinical psychologist at Advocate Children's Hospital, specializing in pediatric trauma psychology and related mental health concerns.

Dr. Trang Pham-Smith
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