Let's start the new year off with a special message and information on supporting mental health in children. While the official world Mental Health Day is in the fall, every day is a good day to focus on mental wellbeing.
Promoting mental health in children is important to many and arguably a top priority for parents. Mental health describes an individual’s emotional well-being. It includes how an individual thinks, feels and what actions they take. Mental health is culturally bound and considers the context in which an emotional reaction occurs. Stress is a normative part of our lives. Some stress occurs in response to an event, like taking a test, and passes afterward. In other cases, stress persists. Parents and teachers help children manage stress by teaching coping skills such as:
Positive self-talk (“I can do hard things.”)
Journal writing or drawing
Taking a walk and identifying 3 new things that bring joy or curiosity
In many cases, children benefit from a gentle reminder to use these strategies and are then able to calm down. At other times, children may experience difficulty getting past a stressful experience. Stress and anxiety in children may present in several ways. Signs of anxiety may include changes in sleep or appetite. Children may be more restless or irritable. They may begin to bite their nails, have a “nervous stomach,” or experience headaches. When these symptoms occur, it’s important to consult with a child’s pediatrician about their overall health. In cases when a child is healthy and these symptoms continue, talk to your child’s teacher so that you can work together to provide support. If symptoms persist, you may want to seek mental health support for your child. Children are more likely to sustain emotional health when they have a positive emotional connection with at least one adult family member, they feel connected at school, or experience positive peer relationships. As a parent or caregiver, there are a variety of things you can do to help children cope with stress.
At home, maintain a regular daily schedule. You may consider writing a simple daily schedule on a white board or calendar at home that a child can check off when complete. This helps increase predictability and reduce distress.
Talk about emotions at home and model coping strategies. When caregivers feel frustrated or nervous, it can be helpful to label the emotion (e.g., “I’m feeling frustrated right now.”) and then model a coping strategy (e.g., walking away to take deep breaths). It’s important for caregivers to re-engage with a child after modeling a coping strategy so that children see how adults are able to calmly return to their activities.
Take opportunities to praise kids for what they are doing well (e.g., “Great job getting your math homework done on your own!”). This helps boost kids’ self-esteem and strengthen your relationship.
Follow a child’s lead. Children tell and show adults when they are upset. For example, if a child is more withdrawn after school, caregivers may inquire about a child’s day. They will tell you with their words or show you by their actions (e.g., lowering their heads, turning away) if there is something they are working through. Sometimes kids need more time to process an experience before they’re ready to talk about it. Give them some time and check back in later. That sends a message that they are important and there is shared respect in the family.
Be an active listener. When kids are ready to raise questions or share stressful experiences, give them your undivided attention. Listen to what they are saying and validate their feelings. In doing so you’re demonstrating that kids are seen and heard.
Overall, children are resilient. Providing youth with a supportive environment is an important part of their mental health. Keep up the good work parents and give yourself a little grace when you lose your cool. We’re all trying to raise good humans! Amy Morse, PsyD Fremont mom and Licensed Psychologist References: National Alliance on Mental Illness https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Kids-Teens-and-Young-Adults/Kids American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/topics/children/stress https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/talking https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/children American Academy of Pediatrics https://www.aap.org/en/news-room/news-releases/aap/2021/american-academy-of-pediatrics-calls-for-focusing-on-safe-stable-relationships-to-prevent-toxic-stress-and-buffer-its-effects-on-children/