How to nurture your child's mental health
As parents, we want our kids to be happy. But no matter how hard we try, we can't guarantee their happiness. What we can do, however, is help them build a strong foundation for lifelong mental health.
To support good mental health, parents can help kids feel good about themselves, develop healthy strategies for coping with difficult times and strive for physical health. Parents should also be able to recognize the signs of more serious mental health problems—and know where to go for help.
Kids with good self-esteem are happier, says Jane Meschan Foy, MD, FAAP, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) who served on the Mental Health Leadership Work Group and is a professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "They are also less subject to peer pressure and able to make better decisions under stress."
To help children build self-esteem, parents can:
Offer sincere encouragement and praise. It's important to acknowledge kids' efforts, not just their accomplishments. Be descriptive in your feedback—for example: "Good job turning your book report in on time. You included a lot of great details about the main character." Try to avoid vague feedback, like: "You're so smart!" or "You're terrific!"
Give kids age-appropriate responsibilities. Help children develop a sense of purpose and contribution by giving them age-appropriate tasks that matter. Then, let them do the job without your constant supervision.
Let them know they belong. Every child needs one-on-one time with parents, Dr. Foy says. This should be a time when phones, TVs and computers are shut off.
"Even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, it should be protected and should never be subject to discipline," she says.
Let the child decide, within reason, what he or she would like to do during that time—such as reading, singing, playing a game or just talking.
Resilience is a key component of overall mental health, according to the AAP.
"We can't give our children perfect childhoods, but we can help them learn from stress and loss," Dr. Foy says. "Most children will experience some sort of loss during childhood. Many experience multiple losses—moving, divorce, deployment of a parent, death of a grandparent or loved one, or change of school."
Each child responds differently to stress and trauma, but all kids can benefit from certain tools, such as:
Good communication skills. "Help children from a very early age put emotions into language and to use language to reach out to others," Dr. Foy says. By being a good role model, you can help kids learn how to express their own needs—and to respond kindly to the needs of others.
Good relationships. "It's important that kids have a social network they can rely on," Dr. Foy says. Help kids build relationships early by teaching them how to help, how to take turns, how to win and lose graciously and how to accept responsibility.
Methods for managing stress. For example, teach kids ways to relax, such as stretching, exercise and spending time in nature.
A positive outlook. "Parents can help children feel appreciative of the good things in life," Dr. Foy says. "Draw attention to positive things about life." A gratitude journal is a good tool, for example. For some people, prayer can also express appreciation, she says.
Minding the body
Mental health requires a healthy body. Kids need sufficient sleep, a balanced diet and regular exercise.
"Sleep is very critical to mental health," Dr. Foy says. "Children who are sleep-deprived may have symptoms of emotional disturbance."
Help kids get the sleep they need by establishing a regular bedtime routine. And make sure kids use beds for sleeping only—not for homework or texting. If they have their own cellphones, have them give you their phones at a set time every night to ensure that they aren't on them all night.
A healthful diet and daily exercise are also important to mental health, in part because they help kids maintain a healthy weight. “Being overweight is associated with lower self-esteem and more stress,” Dr. Foy says.
All children have to cope with challenges. Parents need to monitor their child's reaction to problems and know when to seek help.
"Children will vent in different ways," Dr. Foy says. "Some vent through misbehavior and acting out. Some internalize and become more anxious or dependent or cautious."
Often these behaviors will pass as the child works through the difficult situation. Talking with your child and listening to his or her concerns and fears may help. But sometimes outside help is needed.
"If a child settles into a pattern of being irritable or sad most days, withdrawing from friends, or struggling academically, these could be signs that a child is in trouble," Dr. Foy says. If problems persist, talk with your child's doctor.