Children’s Mental Health Week | February 6-12
Enriching, Supporting, and Maintaining Your Child’s Mental Health
This week is focused on the mental health of our children. We want to outline how parents can be advocates and allies during one of the most difficult phases of life: growing up. When approaching this topic and ways to exercise our support, it is important to consider your child’s circumstances and the individual parts of their personality that make them unique. All of these factors affect how best to move toward presenting yourself as an approachable and reliable person for them to lean on.
Let’s dive into why the mental health of our little ones is important. Learn how you can get involved with the cause. There are resources to help guide you and some tips for you to utilize along the way.
Why is it important to acknowledge a child’s mental health, and why is it often overlooked?
Children undergo many physical and emotional changes. They make and grow apart from friends, learn new things in school, navigate adolescence, and build out their personality. It’s normal to notice drastic changes in your child during this time. However, it’s important to note how they process their feelings at each stage. Building physical and mental health affects how we think, feel, and act – inside and outside.
Unfortunately, there are many unmet needs regarding mental health support for children. These disparities are particularly pronounced for children living in low-income communities, those of ethnic minorities, and those with physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in six U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. While your child is reaching new developmental and emotional milestones, they must learn and utilize healthy social skills, coping skills, and communication skills.
The many misconceptions surrounding mental illnesses, in general, make it familiar for parents to avoid the “bias” that frequently comes with a diagnosis. This stigma has persisted for centuries because parents want to protect their children from unnecessary prejudice and mistreatment. However, ignoring the signs of mental illness can make problems more severe and potentially unmanageable. Nearly half of all mental illnesses manifest themselves in the early teen years. The Family Guidance Center further states that 70% of those youths with mental illnesses who are diagnosed and treated see positive results – is a major reason that it is imperative to pose yourself as a trusting and supportive pillar in your child’s life early on.
How can you help to support your child during this transitional period of their life?
Above all, never try to self-diagnose your child’s mental illness if you think there may be a bigger issue. Secondly, be sure not to dismiss how big of a difference you can make in mitigating an issue that is just beginning to form.
Start early – talk with your kids about how you cope with fear, anxiety, and stress. Explain that they are not outliers; these feelings are normal. Work with them to identify positive ways they can cope. For example, try exercising, focusing on positive thoughts, meditation, breathing exercises, or journaling.
It’s important to recognize that your child likely behaves differently at home (their “safe space”) than at school. Speak openly with your child about their experiences in the classroom and on the playground. Engage with their teachers, and feel comfortable asking questions about your child’s performance, strengths, weaknesses, and social development at school.
Remember that a child’s growth stems from their roots: home. Nurture your child’s mental health by building a close and open relationship with them. Do this by providing structure and boundaries and fostering independence. Communicate openly with your kids and ask questions. Sometimes it’s hard for a child to know where to start or what to say. Encouragement from a trusted source can make all the difference.
What immediate actions and practices can I apply to support my child’s mental health?
Many parents recognize the importance of healthy eating and staying active for a child’s physical health. With the rising rates of mental health challenges in children, more parents are realizing the value of emotional support and nurturing their child’s mental health as an integral part of their overall wellness. Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a Children’s Health clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, explains, “Good mental health is really about creating, encouraging and using everyday healthy habits – like sharing and acknowledging feelings, correcting unhealthy and unhelpful thinking, showing empathy and building resiliency.”
Parents play an important role in supporting their child’s mental health by modeling good habits and instilling them in their children. Therefore, building a close relationship with your child, encouraging healthy social connections, teaching healthy habits, and modeling positive behavior are all essential factors in raising a child with strong mental health.
Kids don’t just communicate with their words; pay attention to their nonverbal cues as well. Be aware of their physical and emotional needs and respond empathetically to them. When a child feels a sense of interest from their parents, they feel safer articulating their needs and experiences. Let your kid know you love and support them in an environment at home where there is no judgment, only safety. Provide consistent positive feedback and encouragement when your child has done something well – knowing they did the right thing encourages feelings of pride, positivity, and confidence, which can stick with a child long term.
Perhaps most importantly, acknowledge that a child’s development starts and ends at home. Kids learn by watching and absorbing their parents’ behaviors, expressions, reactions, and emotional regulations. Talk openly and regularly about your feelings. Share with your child how you dealt with a challenging situation at work or with a friend. Try positioning them on a level playing field so they feel comfortable sharing. Additionally, include your child in decision-making. Children often feel left out of the decision-making process due to their age and life experiences, but taking their opinions into account and explaining how you’ve integrated them into your final plans helps to make them feel included and important.
Are there any books or resources I can provide my child to learn at their own pace?
The recent recognition and attention towards children’s mental health have opened the door for many resources to become available for kids to learn at a speed comfortable for them, in their language. From anxious hedgehogs to puppies who have difficulties articulating their thoughts and feelings, there are endless books written for children that help them to explain and unpack their feelings in a digestible way. These are some of our favorites but check out your local bookstore to see what may be helpful for your kiddo.
- Don’t Feed the Worry Bug | Written and Illustrated by Andi Green
- This is a fun, rhyming book that tackles the biggest monster of all: worry. This book illustrates how quickly anxiety can become overwhelming and how kids can tackle it early.
- What I Like About Me! | Written by Allia Zobel Nolan
- This book is for young children. It celebrates all different types of diversities, from glasses to shoe size, to hair.
- Ruby Finds a Worry | Written by Tom Percival
- This reassuring and sensitive book is the perfect springboard for talking to your children about expressing their hidden worries and nagging feelings.
- B is for Breathe: The ABCs of Coping with Fussy & Frustrating Feelings | Dr. Melissa Munro Boyd
- This easy-to-read book digests the letters A through Z to celebrate how children can appropriately express their feelings and develop coping mechanisms.
- Growing Pangs | Kathryn Ormsbee
- This irresistibly relatable graphic novel appeals to kids and adults of all ages. Outlining the mazes of friendships and growing up, it’s a great map to healthily growing into your feelings.
What are some charitable causes I can contribute towards surrounding children’s mental health?
The United States has an estimated 1.5 million registered nonprofits, according to 2020’s National Center for Charitable Statistics report, so it’s essential to ensure that you donate to an organization that will truly make a difference. If you have somewhere in mind already, try running it through Charity Navigator, a free online nonprofit assessment service. Involvement ideas with associations are below.
- The Child Mind Institute is dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders by giving them the help they need.
- Through education, research, advocacy, and a focus on young adults ages 14–25, Active Minds is opening up the conversation about mental health and creating lasting change in the way mental health is talked about, cared for, and valued in the United States.
- The Trevor Project aims to end suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Their goal is to create a world where all LGBTQ young people see a bright future for themselves.
- NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. They focus on building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
- MHA’s work is driven by a commitment to promote mental health as a critical part of overall wellness. This includes prevention services for all. MHA also focuses on early identification and intervention for those at risk, integrated care, services, and support for those who need them, with recovery as the goal.
- Rethink aims to improve the lives of people severely affected by mental illness. They utilize a network of local groups and services, expert information, and successful campaigning.
Mental health affects people of all ages. You don’t need to have a diagnosed disorder to feel the impacts of your mental health. Parental mental health plays a significant role in a child’s mental health. In addition, be sure to promote positive mental health by focusing on the environment you create at home. Build a strong and caring relationship with your child full of love and acceptance. Positive mental health starts at home.