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Mental health check for the cyber-powered child: Talking about emotion

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May is mental health month and a recent blog post in PyschCentral about social media and mental health surmised research findings that point to correlations of increased levels of anxiety and use of Facebook. The conclusions indicate that the people who are vulnerable to self-esteem issues or depression are more likely to experience greater levels of stress and anxiety using Facebook and feel compelled to use it more, while face to face encounters promoted a greater sense of well being.

And for our youth who are digital natives and spend a good amount of time in the cyber realm, this is a significant consideration as our minor children are still developing their sense of identity and individual resiliency; they are indeed vulnerable to undue influence. So it is perhaps not surprising that mental health issues among youth are increasing.

According to a recent report by the Lucille Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, mental health hospitalization rates are rising for teenagers ages 15-19 in California: their mental health hospitalization rate rose 34% between 2007 and 2012, and in 2012, children and teens faced mental health concerns serious enough to warrant nearly 38,000 hospitalizations.

Related reading: Anxiety in the network: Restoring the brain

Erin Ambrose is a marriage and family therapist and psychology instructor at William Jessup University in Rocklin, observes that there appears to be an increase trend in mental health issues for youth, which is also perhaps an indicator that we are also paying more attention. “I do think mental health issues are increasing for our youth and the statistics indicate that. There are lots of things in life for our kids now that make life challenging,” she said. “Plus we are paying more attention to these things now. I think the mindset in the past was that children didn't suffer with mental health problems but we know differently now.”

What parents can do

According to Ambrose, parents can do much to support an environment where kids feel safe to talk about their emotions. “I would say the number one thing parents can do is validate a child's feelings and never tell them they don't (or shouldn't) feel something,” she said. “I think sometimes parents just want to help a child feel better so they might tell a child ‘Oh, it's not that bad’. But this undermines children's sense of knowing themselves,” she said.

According to Ambrose, when you tell a child not to have the emotional reaction they are having, it inspires more question and doubt about themselves, not peace. “Much better is to tell a child, ‘I know this is hard and your feelings are difficult to feel. We will be with you and support you. You won't always feel so down,’” she said.

Probably the most important thing a modern parent can do to empower their children is to become comfortable talking about emotion so that they can recognize that negative emotions are not facts. While feelings are very real experiences, they are not the facts – they are reactions. That objectivity can serve children to build resiliency to a cyber-powered world that can appear to convince the individual that he or she is not enough; not rich enough, pretty enough, or smart enough.

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