Our mental wellness depends on how we think about ourselves, our lives, and the people we know and care about, and that affects our ability to make healthy choices and decisions. Mental health is about enjoying life, having a sense of purpose, and being able to manage life’s inevitable highs and lows.
It’s no secret that the pandemic years have challenged the mental wellness of many young people, and particularly kids with existing mental health issues like anxiety or depression. According to a study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, close to 45% of youth reported moderate to severe anxiety symptoms, and about 40% of young people who already use alcohol, cannabis or both reported increased use.
Self-medication with substances — a red flag
There is no question that mental health problems and problematic substance use issues are linked. Some kids might find that at first, the use of substances relieves some of their anxiety or stress; however, if they start to self-medicate on a regular basis, they are at a greater risk of developing behavioural symptoms like moodiness, sleep disorders, erratic behaviours, avoidance of friends or situations, along with an increased possibility of developing a substance use disorder. Studies show that ADHD, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression all increase the risk of drug use and dependence in adolescents. At the same time, using substances to self-medicate poses some risk of developing mental health disorders, including psychosis, depression and manic or unusually irritable mood states.
Drug Free Kids Canada’s brochure Mental Health and Substance Use helps parents recognize when a child might be having a tough time – and offers tips for parents to help their children deal with any feelings of anxiety, apprehension, or overwhelming stress they may be feeling as they head back to school this fall, or at any other time in their lives.
90% of people struggling with addiction started using during their adolescence. Drug Free Kids Canada’s vision is to ensure that ALL young people will be able to live their lives free of problematic substance use and addiction.
Get practical tips to help you support your child’s mental wellness.
Sign up here for Drug Free Kids Canada upcoming Back to School webinar Wednesday, September 21, at 7:30 pm, with Dr. Abby Goldstein, a clinical psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviours among adolescents. Dr. Goldstein will discuss links between mental wellness and the use of substances, why kids turn to substance use, and how to recognize risk factors for problematic drug use and substance use disorders, and what parents can do to promote protective factors like resilience in their children.
Don’t miss this opportunity (it’s free!) to get valuable to support your children’s mental wellness through the challenges of this year’s return to the classroom.
How to recognize when your child is having a tough time
Understand that we all tend to go towards certain behaviours when we’re stressed. Listen to what your kids are saying and think about how they normally would act when they feel stressed. For example, if your child gets headaches or stomach aches when they’re anxious, or they revert to behaviour changes like hiding away, being abnormally quiet or acting out when they’re feeling overwhelmed, you’ll know that something may be bothering them, like an uncertainty about going back to school.
Stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues can also impact a child’s academic progress, make it difficult for them to form friendships and cause disruptions at home. You may notice your older teen has started to use cannabis more frequently, many young people think that it helps to relieve anxiety and calm them. Young adult kids might turn to drinking alcohol more often to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings.
Here are some tips to help your kids deal with feelings of anxiety, apprehension, or overwhelming stress in their lives
1. Help them express themselves:
The first step for any parent is to know and understand what their kids are feeling. Initiate frequent conversations with your kids that help them talk about their feelings – and actively listen to what they’re saying. It’s a good thing to remember to be compassionate and nonjudgmental towards their experiences and feelings – each one of us has different ways of coping with our life experiences.
2. Validate their feelings:
It can be worrisome to hear a younger child say, “I’m not going back to school,” or your teen tells you, “Smoking weed every day helps me feel better,” but it’s important to stay calm and positive. Your child may be telling you in their own way that they’re worried or having negative, anxious feelings. Give them the space to express themselves and be sure to validate their feelings. You can reassure them by telling them it’s okay not to feel okay, and then try to bring the subject back to the positive – help them find fresh new perspectives and constructive things they can do to deal with negative feelings. You can also invite your teen to research the health effects of using substances with you and discuss healthier ways they can cope.
3. Set a positive tone:
If you’re concerned about your child’s stress levels as they return to the classroom, don’t start a conversation with a leading question like “Are you nervous about going back to school?” “Are you anxious about seeing your friends again?” That could feed their anxiety.
Instead, help them focus on what they liked about school and being in the classroom, ask them to think of any good things that have happened to them lately, ask them what they’re looking forward to, or think about the things they’ve missed the most that they’ll be able to do.
Remind them of the fun they have with their friends and reassure them that even though they are facing a challenge now, no challenge lasts forever, and things will improve.
4. Language matters:
Many teens won’t talk about how they feel with their loved ones or seek medical help because they’re embarrassed or they do not want others to think they are weak or unstable. Be compassionate and non-judgemental in any conversations about mental health or substance use and show care with your words when talking about anxiety or depression to your kids.
5. Family time is important:
Children who spend time with their parents participating in activities together build a positive sense of self-worth. Be sure to spend time together as a family regularly and be involved in your kids’ lives. Remind your child that you will always be there for them, no matter what. Create and enhance the bonds with your child. Keep the channels of communication open – this builds up connection and trust between you and your child, so if the time comes when they have challenges to face, they will feel comfortable turning to you to help them find healthy ways to work through it.
When should you get help?
Some kids might resist going back to school because learning at home is a lot easier for them. Kids who were bullied or have social anxiety or kids with learning disorders may have had an easier and less stressful time at home where they could do things at their own pace.
Feelings of sadness and despair can affect children of all ages, not just teens and young adults. Younger children can have anxiety as well, and many struggle with their worries or fears in silence – not knowing how to talk about it.
It might be difficult to deal with some of these issues on your own. Reassure your child that you will do something to help them, and with the help of your family doctor, find a therapist who can help your child find healthy ways to cope with the aspects of their lives they find painful, challenging, or overwhelming.
If your child at any age tells you that they are thinking of hurting themselves or feels numb about life – things may have gone way beyond your control. For their safety, get someone to be with your child at all times, and get emergency medical help immediately.