You know all the right things to do to protect your child’s physical health-feed them healthy foods, take them to the doctor, and ensure they get enough sleep and exercise. But what about helping your child grow up mentally healthy? It turns out there is plenty you can do as parents to help support your child’s emotional and mental well-being.
What Does ‘Good Mental Health’ Really Mean?
Mental health entails being able to deal with life’s ups and downs. Good mental health allows children to experience both comfortable and uncomfortable emotions without high levels of distress. In other words, they are able to handle uncomfortable feelings such as hurt and embarrassment and do not crumble under unexpected or disappointing circumstances. Despite challenges, they are able to persevere and can move on from failure. Mentally healthy kids can also adapt to change (within reason) and aren’t overly fearful about new experiences.
Your child’s ability to cope with new situations will vary as he or she grows and develops—a 2-year-old will have a harder time coping with new situations than a 12-year-old. Depending on your child’s temperament, more cautious children may be more fearful in new situations than those who are bold. A child’s confidence and resilience will vary considerably depending on their age, stage, and temperament.
Strategies for Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health
What is the most important factor in helping your child develop positive mental health? You. In all of the literature on childhood mental health, the parent-child relationship is the leading indicator. Invest in the relationship, be present with your children, nurture your own mental health and well-being so you can be present with your children, and do not condition anything about your relationship with them on their behavior.
Here are some practical ways you can use to foster that strong parent-child relationship and boost your child’s resilience and flexibility.
Tips for promoting positive mental health:
- Be a Role Model
Children learn how to respond to frustration, challenges, and uncomfortable feelings based on the ways in which their parents deal with them. For example, if children see their parents react to frustration with anger and give up, they tend to do the same. A parent who communicates excessive fear about new things and tries to shelter the child from situations where any hurt or disappointment could occur is likely to have a child who is more fearful and avoidant as well.
- Limit Your Child’s Screen Time
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time (other than video chatting) for kids under 2 and only one hour of quality children’s programming for kids 2 to 5. Limiting screen time can improve mental health. Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronic use than we may realize. Excessive screen time has been linked to school problems, aggression, and other behavioral issues. The “sensory overload” causes kids to have poor focus and depletes their mental energy, which often leads to anger and explosive behavior. It is possible for kids to become overstimulated and “revved up,” and they may have difficulty managing stress and regulating their mood.
In addition to limiting screen time for kids, you should also put down your phone and show your kids how to balance electronics with other activities in life. Parents should also engage with their kids without devices present all the time to support healthy parent-child relationships and child development.
- Stop Helicoptering or Snowplowing
You’ve heard about helicopter parents (who hover over their children to ensure everything’s going well) and snowplow parents (who smooth the way for their children, so they don’t have to face any bumps in the road). Although well-intentioned, these types of parents prevent their children from experiencing disappointments and overcoming obstacles. When children are involved in activities with caregivers where they are able to succeed some of the time but have to overcome challenges other times, they are more likely to develop healthy self-esteem and mental health.
Whether it’s climbing something higher or putting together a puzzle they’ve never done before, let them try something new. Don’t jump right in to rescue them if they encounter a problem, but support them through it so they can learn how to successfully manage something that’s a little challenging without falling apart. This is the perfect opportunity for you to offer encouragement and support. Allow your child to try new things, and if they fail, let them try again while creating a soft landing in case they fail.
- Focus on Your Child’s Physical Health
Providing the best building blocks for mental and physical health is essential. Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. Diet contributes to mood, attention, anxiety, and behavior. Mental health problems are more likely to occur in children who consume a diet high in processed foods that are devoid of nutrients. It is also crucial to make sure your kid gets enough sleep to maintain good mental health since poor sleep can impact mood, coping skills, and emotional resilience.
- Talk to Your Child About How They’re Feeling
Good mental health requires the ability to share feelings in a productive, healthy manner. Kids should be allowed to feel sad, frustrated, and hurt and supported to work through those feelings in appropriate ways. Help them manage big, uncomfortable feelings by modeling and supporting them to use techniques like deep belly breathing, movement, distraction, and talking.
- Accentuate the Positive
You can boost your child’s self-esteem by praising them for their efforts, not their successes. A good way to start is to point out what your child does well and how you notice them succeeding. The crucial thing is to praise a child’s effort despite their struggles or not being the best at whatever they’re doing so they develop a positive sense of self.
- Show That Making Mistakes Is Normal
Rather than harping on your child’s errors, show them your own occasional mistakes. Spotlighting your mistakes helps children understand that everyone makes mistakes and they aren’t a reflection of their worth. A positive, healthy sense of self-worth will help them avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with perfectionism.
In order to establish a strong foundation for your child’s mental health, you must build trust, demonstrate strong communication skills, and be a good role model. Being supportive of your child’s mental health also means getting them help or support when they need it.
You are the expert on your child. If they are acting in a way that seems strange or worrisome to you, don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor. Don’t let fear or embarrassment keep you from getting your child help when they need it. It is the most supportive and courageous thing you can do. Treatment and intervention will enable them to care for their mental health.