When we think about health for children, we often picture a food pyramid or elementary school gymnasiums. What you probably don’t immediately conjure is mental health and emotional wellness, though these things are equally as important as physical well-being. Starting children off early with tools to help them understand and express their mental needs is essential. Here are some things you can do to set you on the right path.
Demonstrate so They Can Emulate
Children watch everything their parents and guardians do. The saying “actions speak louder than words” is especially relevant here. In her article for “Very Well Family,” Amy Morin explains how neglecting your mental health can affect your child: “A parent’s untreated mental illness may make family life inconsistent or unpredictable. It can also affect a parent’s ability to discipline the children and may strain a couple’s relationship. Those things take a toll on a child’s psychological well-being.” When you take care of your own mental health and emotional intelligence, your children will see evidence of what they need to do.
Practicing self-care, health, hygiene and sleep habits builds a strong foundation. Not only does this demonstrate positive behavior but it assures that you are performing at your best. Taking yourself and your family to regular doctor’s appointments is another good practice. Try to demonstrate a positive relationship with your own body.
Provide your child with a safe environment. This means their physical and emotional well-being should be protected. Be the first in a series of positive role models. When you talk to them, share both positive and negative experiences that you’ve had—show them vulnerability. This shows that they can trust you and allow themselves to be vulnerable and honest.
Provide Unconditional Love
Everyone makes mistakes, and kids especially learn by experimenting, testing limits, and breaking rules. While you can’t control what they’re going to do, you can control how you respond. Keep your cool when they get heated—one of the “100 Everyday Ways to Nourish a Child’s Mental Health” according to Angela Pruess on the blog “Parenting With Confidence”.
By reminding your child you love them, and forgiving them for their mistakes, you continue to build trust. For young children especially, behavior is one of their main modes of communication. If they are constantly acting up, try to find out why.
Another of the 100 tips is to figuratively move toward them, not away, when they are struggling. Sending a child into a “time out” leaves them isolated. Instead, try a “time in”, where you stay with your child. Sometimes just staying near them and letting them know you forgive them is enough. Create a ‘calm down’ corner that your child can elect to use on their own time. And remember that discipline is a teaching technique, not just a punishment.
When giving your child compliments, stick to effort over achievement. Praise them for how much work they put into something rather than the results (grades, sports scores, etc.) and be realistic rather than relying on hyperbole. Let them know you believe in them and show it by supporting them even when they stumble.
Children can also learn by making ‘safe’ mistakes, or the kind that don’t require discipline. This allows for natural consequences and lets them discover cause and effect. Allowing them space to take healthy risks shows that you trust them to both know and test their own boundaries. Allow unscheduled down time rather than over-planning ever minute. Play with your child and let them choose the activity, even if it’s outside of your comfort zone.
Of course, there are healthy limits and some boundaries that shouldn’t be pushed. Teaching your child about bodily autonomy and agency gives them control. Teach them about consent and support their right to say “no” when they’re uncomfortable being touched. This includes family members who ask for hugs and kisses. Let them know that if your child says no, it means no, even if they can’t verbally communicate. Demonstrate and provide good physical touch and show them that they can decide when enough is enough.
Understand A Child’s Worldview
You can’t expect a child to act like an adult. Their brains are wired entirely differently, and some of those differences are important to know when helping them handle mental health. In another article for “Parenting with Confidence”, Pruess explains why simply telling a child to change their behavior doesn’t work: “The part of the brain responsible for impulse control and a multitude of self-regulation tasks is underdeveloped in children, in addition to all their sensory systems being immature (which are responsible for taking in and processing information from the environment all day long)”. That means instead of trying to control a child’s feelings and reactions, you should help them understand the cause and how to better express them.
Children thrive on routine and predictability, so there are some steps you can take to help them better understand their mental health. Creating a schedule and sticking to it can cut back on anxiety and stress. And while you can’t eliminate stress altogether, you can help build a mental health toolkit.
Build A Mental Health Toolkit
Teaching your child about mental health should start early. You can read books that normalize emotions, like Batman’s Dark Secret and Tough Guys Have Feelings Too. Practice mindfulness with them—simple exercises like breathing or body scans can help them identify the ways their bodies change with different emotions. These exercises will give your child language to use that helps them explain what’s happening. They can use that skill in a journal—even if they can’t write, they may be able to draw pictures of their day or express how they’re feeling with color.
You’ll want your child’s toolkit to go with them even, and especially, when they are not with you. Show them ways to cope when you aren’t around to help. Realistic expectations for stressful situations are essential. While stress cannot always be avoided, there are often ways to manage anxiety or panic that arise from these scenarios. Understanding coping mechanisms and limitations are both important.
Get to Know Them
The toolkit will vary from child to child. Even if you have more than one child of your own, they will face unique obstacles and handle stressors differently. You can help personalize their mental health journey by getting to know them; look beyond “your” child, and instead focus on the individual. Create ways to connect with them daily. When having discussions, listen first to what they have to say and talk or respond second. Pay attention to their interests and share yours. Show them you are an individual outside of being a parent, which shows that they are more than just your child.
Sharing time as a family at meals and having traditions are natural ways to encourage togetherness. Unplug from devices and enjoy each other’s company without distraction. Hold family meetings where everyone is given responsibilities as well as talking about obligations. This will be important as your children grow and begin making plans of their own. However, when they are younger, it helps lay out expectations and consequences for not meeting those expectations. Allow everyone to ask questions and answer them honestly.
You can find out how your child conducts themselves when you are not around by communicating with other authority figures in their life. Attend parent/teacher conferences or meet with their coaches or scout leaders. Volunteer on the PTA or in your religious community so that you can see how they do in social situations with others. Allow opportunities for social situations where you aren’t present as well with both friends and family.
Spend time with your child exploring new things. These can be new to one or both of you. Allowing them to see you learning and making mistakes is another way to teach by example. If they see you persist even in an activity you aren’t good at, they are less likely to fear “failure”.
Open and Honest Dialogue
Remember growing up can be stressful! Show your child you are on their team by having open and honest conversations with them. When you have a misstep, be sure to apologize to them without qualifiers. Admit to your mistakes the same way you want them to admit to theirs. Make yourself available both physically and emotionally.
Open yourself up to uncomfortable conversations. When your child asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, offer to find out together. Find out what they think they know on the subject, and gently correct them if they are factually wrong. Let them develop their own ideas and opinions, even if you disagree with them.
Ask them about their day. Allow them to address both good and bad things that happen to them, and validate their feelings. Emotional intelligence is something we develop with age, so very young children will need guidance in learning to respond appropriately. Help them to engage in problem solving of all kinds, and welcome do-overs.
Encouraging a child’s mental health is equally as important as a balanced diet and getting enough exercise. No matter how much time you put into it, however, you may still need to consult with a medical professional. This is not your fault and should not be avoided. Taking a child in to a mental health professional is just like taking them in to the family doctor for a cold—if there are signs of an illness, there is no harm in getting a check-up.