When to Pray, When to Parent and When to Seek Help
By Morgan Myers
As a child I was always highly sensitive and sometimes melancholy. I was shy (terrified of social situations), anxious and a worrier. I had long seasons of sadness when I didn’t care about anything or anyone. I felt trapped. I didn’t know until much later that I am prone to depression and anxiety.
I grew up in the Church and the idea of counseling was never talked about and never an option for us. At one point during a season of darkness I was sent for prayer. I remember being confused about why no one wanted to hear from me or talk to me; they just wanted to label what they thought my problems were and pray that I would be freed from them. I can now see how much I have carried that interaction with me. Their reaction to my pain led me to assume that I had to free myself from those problems. I assumed it was my fault if I didn’t have freedom from them. I remember thinking, “I’m still feeling dark; I must not have prayed enough.”
Fast forward 15 years, when I was working on my counseling degree. This was the first time I learned in depth about the chemical changes in your brain when you are depressed or anxious. It led me to view depression more holistically. Still believing in healing and prayer, I now also consider mental health for all it is. I think pastors and church leaders are in unique positions to carefully and compassionately guide families through the process of getting the help and healing they need.
It can be difficult to decipher the difference between behavioral problems, developmental stages and changes, and mental health issues. I will try to clarify below what more serious mental health problems might look like in kids and teens.
Important Notes About Mental Health in Kids
Depression and anxiety are just as present in children and teens as in adults. Children as young as 3 can exhibit signs of both depression and anxiety. Depression in children can look like:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Poor work performance at school
- Behavioral changes
- Anger (often in boys)
Depression is more of a general low all the time as opposed to the roller coaster of a typical 2-4-year old (or a middle schooler for that matter). Anxiety can look similar to the above. It can also include:
- Ruminating on something/mental loops
- Hyper-vigilance (like anticipating the worst)
- Biting nails to the point it causes pain or bleeding
- Fear or worry about going to school or church
- Angry outbursts
With teens symptoms might also include:
- Substance use
- Thinking or talking about suicide
With all of these symptoms, for a diagnosis, they need to be present for at least three weeks, and they can last for a while.
Remember: Not all issues are parenting issues. Not all issues are spiritual issues. And not all issues are mental health issues. We can teach kids that there are times we need prayer and healing. We need Jesus to speak into our pain because we know he went before us in all things. He sends his Spirit to bring freedom from sin and death. There are other times we need to love our kids well and accept them no matter what, while still providing limits when their behavior crosses the line. Then there are times we are in over our heads and we need some professional help. As pastors, parents and lay leaders in the church it’s our job to meet them where they are and recognize when it’s time to refer them to more help.
As a mental health professional, I would recommend you consult with a therapist in your area about when to refer for counseling; sometimes they can come in and do some training for pastors and lay leaders on recognizing the signs of mental health problems. If your parishioners are seeing the symptoms listed above it’s important to refer them to a professional counselor.