Everyone feels distress at some point in their lives, and a pediatric mental health crisis is something that can happen in any family. Preparing for a potential crisis by making a plan and building resources in advance can make the situation much more manageable for you and your child.
We spoke with two of Children’s Hospital Colorado's youth mental health experts in our Pediatric Mental Health Institute, Lauren Wood, PhD, and Jenna Glover, PhD, to learn how parents and caregivers can prepare today to help their child through a crisis, should one take place tomorrow.
Can you prepare for a mental health crisis?
While you can’t know exactly when a crisis may occur, you can spot early warning signs and create an action plan to guide you when your child’s emotions – and your own – are running high.
“Having a plan in advance is really helpful,” Dr. Wood says. “When you’re in a crisis, your brain is not able to easily reason and plan. So, if you can do the thinking and writing when you’re calm, when a crisis does hit, you can just follow the plan.”
The crisis kit: making an action plan
Dr. Wood recommends creating a crisis kit – a plan of action. She suggests placing the following things into one document or binder and keeping it in a place where you can find it in a pinch.
Here's what to include:
- Crisis warning signs that indicate your child is in – or soon to be in – a mental health crisis. This includes children saying that they'd be "better off dead," having thoughts about suicide and threats to harm themselves or others. Some signs may be unique to your child, and some require immediate attention.
- Ways to increase mental health supports for your child when they are in or approaching crisis
- Resources in case of a mental health emergency, including crisis lines, intensive treatment programs and nearby emergency rooms in the event that your child needs immediate help.
- Helpful people you can reach out to for support and connection, such as your child’s pediatrician, therapist, friends, coaches or close family members
- A list of favorite activities and places that your child finds helpful for comfort or distraction
- A distress tolerance box with items that your child finds helpful for support or distraction
How to make a distress tolerance box
Much like having a first-aid kit in your car for a cut or burn, preparing a distress tolerance box to have on hand can help comfort and distract your child during times of high stress. Creating the box and selecting what goes inside can also be a fun and meaningful activity for the family. Dr. Glover suggests building it together, and before your child might need it.
"The special items inside your crisis toolbox can serve as a reminder that there are people who love you and will help you get through whatever you’re feeling," she says. Every child is different, so every distress tolerance box will differ, too.
What to put in your kid’s crisis box
Fill your child’s distress tolerance box with a variety of items, such as:
- Items to play with, like stress balls and fidget toys
- Things to create with, such as sketch books, journals, modeling clay or finger paints
- Something to set their mind to, like a puzzle, crossword, book or comic
- Things to remember, like mementos, photographs, drawings or letters from friends and family
- Notes of affirmation from loved ones, or even the child themselves
The items you help your child place inside of their crisis kit should feel unique and meaningful to your child or teen. Keep the kit in an easy-to-reach place so that it’s handy the next time they feel overwhelmed or distressed.
If you need help
If your child is in distress or crisis and you’re not sure what to do or where to turn, call a crisis line. Trained counselors will calmly walk you through your situation, ask the right questions and help you find the resources you need to help your child.