Mental health matters, at every age.We like to think kids are resilient, but we can carry unresolved childhood trauma with us through adulthood. One study found that children and teens suffering from a psychiatric disorder were six times more likely to have legal, financial, health, and social problems as adults. According to the WHO, one in five children experiences mental health disorders, half of which begin before the age of 14.The good news is, providing kids with love, encouragement, and coping skills can support good mental health through childhood and adolescence, setting them up for a lifetime of resiliency.
Keep Lines of Communication Open
Building a strong bond with your child through open communication is essential for their emotional wellbeing. It’s especially important never to belittle their concerns when they open up to you, even if they seem irrational.Kids need to be allowed to feel frustrated, sad, afraid, and hurt. If they feel they aren’t allowed to express uncomfortable feelings around you, they won’t develop that sense of support and understanding, and they might not learn how to work through them in an appropriate way.
Accentuate the Positive
On the other hand, though life isn’t always easy, modeling a good attitude to kids when things don’t work out as planned can make a huge difference. Showing children how to find the good in the bad teaches resilience and helps them learn to roll with the punches.There is a balance, however. Toxic positivity, which disallows all feelings of negativity under any circumstances, does far more harm than good.
Encourage Creative Problem Solving
Avoid the temptation to hide your mistakes from your children. Kids need to know that messing up sometimes is a normal part of being human and that nobody’s perfect — not even grown-ups. Instead of letting them dwell on every blunder, show them how to come up with a solution through trial and error. Learning how to confidently overcome challenges in creative ways can help kids hone their unique talents and skills, leading to future success.
Feed Their Minds (Literally)
Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. A nutrient-poor, highly processed diet can negatively affect behavior and cognitive ability in children and adolescents, putting them at higher risk for mental health problems. Attention span, energy levels, and mood can often be improved with a well-balanced diet.
Nurture Self-Esteem the Healthy Way
Kids thrive on genuine praise from their parents and caregivers, but not all praise is equally productive. If you only acknowledge their successes, you’re setting them up to feel inadequate when they don’t achieve perfection every time. If your child is working hard to overcome obstacles, praise them for giving it their all — even when they’re not quite succeeding. This will motivate them to keep pushing forward and not give up as easily when things aren’t going to plan.
Help Them Cope with Stress
Stress is an unavoidable part of everyone’s life, but too much of it can be toxic to brain development. Young children who experience recurrent stress are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems down the line. Teaching anxiety management techniques and the importance of self-care will give them a sense of control in stressful situations.
Make Time for Play
Play is critical to child development, so much so that clinicians who work with children use it as a form of therapy.Allowing kids plenty of unstructured playtime helps them build a solid foundation of self-control, creativity, and problem-solving and interpersonal skills that will last a lifetime.
Take Care of Your Own Mental Health
The link between parent and child mental health is strong. Unfortunately, children raised by caregivers with psychiatric illness are more likely to have poor mental and physical health, too. Kids learn how to respond to challenges, frustration, and uncomfortable feelings by observing how their parents and caregivers handle them.If you’re struggling with your own mental health issues, seek support so you can work on being healthier for both yourself and your kids.
What to Look Out For
You know your child best. Don’t ignore sudden, unexplained changes in a child’s behavior, habits, or routines.Stay on top of the following early warning signs that your child might be struggling with his or her mental health:
- Avoiding social interaction
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
- Extreme irritability or drastic mood swings
- Talk of self-harm
- Changes in weight or eating habits
- Oversleeping or insomnia
- Frequent physical complaints (headache, stomachache, etc.)
- Worsening academic performance
- Missing school
Reminder: Kids Aren’t Mini Adults
Because their cognitive function is still developing, children can’t process the world the way adults can. They lack the life experience we take for granted to overcome everyday challenges. This affects how they identify and react to perceived threats, which often leads to irrational or counterproductive responses.By giving children the tools and guidance they need to nurture their emotional intelligence early and often, you’re setting them up for a lifetime of good mental health. And by being a constant support system even if mental health issues you can’t prevent do develop, you are showing them they can handle any obstacles they’ll face as they grow up, together.