Mental Health Awareness: Mental Health in Kids with Dr. Anderson

In Honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Team SN sat down with Dr. David Anderson from the Child Mind Institute to discuss Mental Health in kids. Keep scrolling to learn more about the Child Mind Institute and Dr. Anderson's experience in focusing on mental health in kids.

A Quick Intro

Dr. David Anderson

Dr. Dave Anderson is a clinical psychologist and the Vice President of School and Community Programs at the Child Mind Institute. He spends most of his time in clinical practice seeing children and adolescents and overseeing a team of 40 people in New York and California who focus on delivering mental health services and support for educators and parents. He also focuses on treating students and providing professional training across the country to educators and school-place mental health professionals. When he is not at work, Dr. Anderson loves spending time with his two kids and wonderful partner, Dylan.

The Child Mind Institute

The Child Mind Institute is a National Nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders by giving them the help they need to thrive. They're the leading independent nonprofit in children’s mental health, operating three Mission Areas that work together for greater impact: Care, Education, and Science.

What are some of the best ways to check in on your child’s mental health?

Checking in with your kids is often difficult for parents because we're so busy. When kids are younger, parents often put pressure on themselves to always be one step ahead and as their kids get older this often shifts to scratching off a to-do list. The conversation often becomes less conducive to mental health and how their kids are actually doing. 

Here are a few ways to check-in:

  • Talk about your own mental health with your kids. How're you feeling? What're you stressing about? Your kids will see how you handle your stressors, how you work through those challenges, what you rely on, and who you check in with.

  • Show interest in your child rather than just asking them questions and marking off a to-do list. When you're more involved without an agenda, your child will be more comfortable talking to you. 

  • Spend time with your children and make a space where they can speak to you about their concerns and what's going on.

  • Take a more natural approach and change your child's expectations of the situation so they feel comfortable talking with you. 

How do you recognize possible mental health disorders in children?

One of the main issues we have is the stigma around mental health disorders in this county. If your child is showing a fever or a cough, parents are very quick to get in touch with a doctor. Whereas with mental health, parents will wait anywhere from 2 to 6 years from the time they are concerned to the time they seek a professional. And the reason is partly stigma, availability, access, and the possibility that medication will be recommended.

Every mental health disorder contains symptoms that are reoccurring. All kids have some level of anxiety, sadness, difficulty focusing, and difficult events they have to be resilient to in their lives. We take these fairly common experiences and apply the following: frequency, intensity, duration, and impairment. When we are trying to assess a possible mental health disorder in children we assess how frequently the symptoms are happening, how intense they are, how long they take place, and how they get in the way of their relationships. This helps us to determine if it's a phase or a possible mental health disorder. If one in five kids have a mental health disorder and another two could use some extra support, odds are it's important to talk to someone sooner rather than later.

What kind of questions should we be asking our kids?

We often coach parents through screening questions to tell if their child is really struggling. We have a guide for the different types of questions a parent should be asking, not all at once, but from time to time, so that they can share their experiences. 

We often start off with questions about anxiety. Is there anything that makes you nervous? Is there anything you find yourself worrying about a lot? A lot of times a child will start talking about it what is making them anxious.

Our next questions touch on symptoms of depression. Are you feeling down? What're your wellness and sleeping habits?

Then we touch on problems in school. Are there subjects harder than others? Do you have problems focusing? Are you less organized than other classmates?

And lastly, trauma. Have you experienced something that has been troubling or distressing recently?

If you think your child is struggling, what should be the first step?

Usually, our first step is to keep monitoring. We'll focus on what's at your disposal already and what resources you can use. For example, how can we make it so that the tv shows and movies our kids are watching can be a way we can talk about what they're currently struggling with.

Another available resource is the California Healthy Minds, Thriving Kids Project. It's a series of free, evidence-based video and print resources that caregivers and educators can use to teach their kids critical mental health and coping skills. If you are worried your kid is struggling but it might not be an area where they need therapy, the videos are great resources you can use for every age range. 

Lastly, it's important for parents to not be afraid to tell someone. Tell their teachers that you think your child is struggling to help avoid the stigma. It takes a village to raise a child. 

How to talk to your children if they have anxiety?

There is a three-step process we use in therapy to talk about anxiety.

  1. Normalize it. So you have anxiety, everyone does, let's normalize it. 

  2. Get Comfortable. Dealing with anxiety doesn't mean it will go away, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Nervousness is something we can exist alongside. 

  3. Exposure. The way you get past it is by exposing yourself in small doses until you conquer the fear. Make a plan and be creative by coming up wth a step-by-step approach on how to address it. 

Is there a time when you should start worrying about your child’s mental health?

Parents start worrying the moment their kids are born and even before that. I don't find it difficult to tell a parent when to start worrying but crossing a threshold to start talking about it. The more we talk about anxiety to our pediatricians, teachers, school counselors, therapists, and neighbors, the more we can make sure that we have the right support in place for our kids.

Do you have any suggestions on ways to help your child manage depression at a young age?

There is a lot on social media about toxic positivity. You can't just tell a kid to be happy. No matter how privileged they are or what advantages they may have, everyone gets sad and depression has no bounds.

What we can do is focus on healthy habits with eating, hydration, sleeping, exercise, and all sorts of coping mechanisms. Depression convinces us to stay home and stay in bed, so it's important to focus on relaxation, mindfulness, and the importance of engaging in life even when your brain is telling you not to.

Learn More

Check out our episode of In House with Arielle Charnas with Dr. Anderson as he answers questions close to both Arielle and Candice’s hearts. 

Learn more about the Child Mind Institute here.

Learn more about the California Healthy Minds, Thriving Kids Project here.

Check out Dare to Share. A campaign that features celebrities and kids telling powerful stories about their own challenges and how they found the courage to ask for support.