Nurturing your child’s mental health is just as important as nurturing their physical health, if not more so. In a world where time is a scarce commodity, many parents assume that the job of providing a healthy living environment, nourishment, and medical care that supports their child’s physical growth is the foremost part of parenting. This assumption leads to neglecting the secure attachment and the parent and child relationship that promotes robust mental health. While your child can recover from a lack of vitamins relatively easily, the same can hardly be said of mental health difficulties.
A study led by Alissa Goodman, Director of the National Child Development Study (NCDS), analyzed information about a large group of British residents followed for five decades from their first week of birth. According to James P. Smith, one of the study’s authors and a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, their findings “demonstrate that childhood psychological problems can have significant negative impacts throughout an individual’s life, much more so than childhood physical health problems.”
This isn’t to dismiss the importance of physical health in any way but to emphasize the importance of mental health. You may be aware that the effect of how you were parented has long lasting effects on you and may be cause for reflection.
Why Mental Health Is Important
Looking at what mental health definition is for children brings the importance into a sharper focus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have a definition of being mentally healthy during childhood. It is reaching developmental and emotional milestones, learning healthy social skills, and coping with problems. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and in their communities. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can make a contribution to her or his community.” These are far less visual or easy to clarify as a body mass index or ‘chubby.’ Therefore, physical health problems are easier to see and solve. In the same way we should be comfortable in talking about any physical health issues, so topics like depression should not be taboo. Like sex and drugs, not talking about them will not mean they don’t happen.
Phrases such as “realizes his or her potential”, “healthy social skills”, “can cope with normal stresses of life”, and “work productively and fruitfully” stand out from the above definitions. Each is an ingredient essential for leading a fulfilled life and going beyond surviving to thriving. Practically, having healthy social skills will enable your child to show empathy, communicate, and cultivate meaningful and long-lasting relationships. If your child can work productively and fruitfully, they can fit into workplaces and climb the corporate or business ladder, among other things. Additionally, in the face of challenges, stress, and failures, your child will know how to cope because they’ve built up resilience and are strong mentally. It doesn’t mean that they won’t quit or always succeed. Instead, they will be able to keep it in perspective and see the bigger picture. Mental health touches every part of your child’s overall health.
What Good and Bad Mental Health Looks Like in Children
You can’t develop a solution or improve an existing situation unless you know there’s a problem. This is why you need to know the signs of good and bad mental health in children so you can act accordingly in a timely way. Below are a few signs of good mental health in children.
- They don’t shy away from trying new or challenging things.
- They handle tough times pretty well.
- They remain kind to themselves when they’re struggling and things aren’t working out.
- They have a positive self-image.
- They know how to manage and express feelings of sadness, worry, anger, or disappointment.
- They have a positive outlook on life.
- They settle in with their peers and have fun together.
- They concentrate and learn well.
Below are some signs of bad mental health in your child.
- They exhibit harmful out-of-control behavior.
- Change in their sleeping or eating habits.
- They are engaging in risky behavior.
- They rebel against authority figures.
- They pay next to no attention to their physical appearance.
- They are devoid of energy and motivation.
- They get frequent mood swings.
- They withdraw to avoid family and friends.
- They have difficulty concentrating.
- Fidgeting or worrying constantly.
- They have difficulty separating from a parent.
- They have persistent nightmares.
- They are losing weight at a quick rate.
How To Nurture Your Child’s Mental Health Early
Nurturing your child’s mental health is a process that adds up in the long run. Nicholas J. Westers, a children’s health clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, explained that “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.”
Find out ways to nurture good mental health in your child below.
- Spend time together. When you spend quality time with your child, it tells the child that you value them. This, in turn, promotes secure attachment, which is essential for building resilience in children. Remember, quality time here means time without your cell phone, computer, or any other thing that could distract you. Quality time is not about duration. It’s about how invested you are in the moment.
- Avoid threatening or nagging them. Your child will frustrate you sometimes. You must try not to shout, intimidate or browbeat them. Instead, let them know that their actions have consequences. And follow through on consequences consistently.
- Let them experience failure and distress. If you shelter your child so much from failure or distress, they might not know how to handle the feelings when they eventually experience them. They will simply be mentally ill-equipped to handle it, impacting their emotional health disproportionately. Instead of always showing up to fix their problems, hold back and let them do it themself. Just be on standby to support if need be.
- Provide structure and routine. This involves putting a limit on electronics, bedtime, playtime, and making expectations clear. It provides your child with much-needed reliability. However, while structure and routine are great, you may want to allow some flexibility. Don’t account for every second of the day. Allow your child time to do their own thing. Being in control is important for all of our mental health. Maybe they need some help to be able to prioritize? We give some advice on this aspect here.
- Teach them how to cope with stress. Stress is part of living, and everyone encounters it in some form. But many adults have ways of unplugging from overly stressful situations. Children don’t always know how to and may find it difficult. Teach them stress-coping mechanisms like listening to music, playing a recreational game, practicing deep breathing, and using their imagination to visit relaxing places.
- Get them to talk about how they feel. Emotional health is connected to psychological health. Such is the importance of emotional health. Pent-up emotions can cause tension and sudden outbursts, disturbing your child’s mental health. Create avenues that encourage your child to talk. Be attuned enough to notice when something might be disturbing them emotionally. When you notice, ask. You can even ask them to write you a letter if they’re not comfortable enough to communicate verbally. Getting your child to talk to you is a skill.
Final Thoughts on Mental Health in Children
It can be difficult for parents to tell the difference between normal childhood development that all children experience and mental health concerns or disorders. Being able to tell them apart can be the difference between swift professional intervention and delayed intervention. If you want to know if your child’s mood swing is a direct consequence of a stressful week, pay attention to how intense it is, how long it lasts, and whether it’s interfering with their life. If it is intense, lasts for too long, is inappropriate for your child’s age, or disrupts his or her life, then it might be a symptom of an underlying mental health issue. Don’t ignore your instincts. Collect all the information you can on your child’s behavior. Then seek professional help. We discuss here about getting your child to talk more generally about their health.