We often do not think that children can suffer from mental health issues. Certainly, all children have better or worse days, but the sad reality is that children may also suffer from depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, communication difficulties, and many other challenges. In the rush of busy lives it may be easy to not realize that an overly shy child is suffering from clinical anxiety, the aggressive child is trying to cover up self-esteem issues, and the child labeled as behaviorally challenged is in reality showing symptoms of distress driven by parent-child attachment issues in the home. As parents we try to help our children through these struggles as best we can. Here are four strategies that may help.
Here are 4 ways you can learn in order to help improve your child’s mental health:
Before offering any advice, pause and carefully listen to what he or she has to say. Think about what emotions may be driving the words. For example, when a child says "See what I made!", the emotion is "I am proud of what I did!". When a child says "I am mad at you" the emotion is "I am confused/frustrated/lonely/scared". Try to respond to the underlying emotion. Having the feelings underlying the words recognized leads to the sense of "really feeling heard". When children feel heard they are more likely to trust their parent, and respond to a direction and support.
Compliment and Appreciate:
Supporting your child's interests helps to build your child's self-esteem and confidence. By focusing on your child's willingness to try to overcome challenges, rather than if they were completely successful, your child will learn they can rely on you for support when they are struggling. They will also know that you will celebrate with them when they have achieved their goal. Remember to compliment children on the portions of tasks they have managed. Many times this positive feedback will be enough to motivate children to take on somewhat harder tasks, or to attempt to finish another piece of larger challenge.
Language of Emotions:
Many children either isolate themselves or lash out when they are angry or upset. While dangerous behaviors need to be responded to immediately, teaching children how to manage emotions takes many attempts over time. Often parents help children to manage the emotions they are comfortable with, but struggle to help children to deal with emotions they themselves avoid or suppress. The first step is to learn how to identify the many emotions people feel. The second step is to realize that all emotions have a valid place in our lives and serve a purpose. Knowing an emotion's purpose helps use to accept the emotional experience. Children learn how to respond to emotions based on how they see their parents dealing with that emotion. Thus, it is a parent's job to learn how to be comfortable with their own feelings, so that they can show their children how to appropriately respond to difficult feelings. It is ok to feel angry, resentful, scared, lonely, confused, embarrassed, or so many other things. But it is wonderful if we have a parent, friend, or partner who is able to accept that emotion and "be with us" as we move through these difficult experiences.
Encourage Learning and Thinking:
Encouraging our children to explore their world can be both exciting and stressful. Children can constantly amaze us with how quickly they grasp new concepts, try out new words, and attempt new challenges. They can also frighten and distress us by bringing home ideas or words that are unacceptable, strange, or unexpected. Children are also prone to trying activities that are risky. A parent's job is to encourage our children to explore, while ensuring that the potential negative outcomes are not overly risky. For a child to learn how to skate they need to learn how to fall down safely. For a child to learn how to read they need to learn how to be ok with with mispronouncing or misunderstanding words. It can be hard to let our children make errors, to slip on the ice, or overreach, but by allowing this to happen when we are available to provide comfort, support, and reassurance, our children learn to be confident and undaunted by failure.
These suggestions may help in managing everyday parenting challenges. If you are struggling to implement these suggestions, or your find your children are not responding you may want to talk with a clinician who specializes in children/teens and parent-child relationships. Raising children has many moving parts. How you, your child, and your parent-child relationship are doing can change from day to day, even from minute to minute. Generally children are very resilient to their own mistakes and parenting errors. If though, despite everyone's best efforts things are still not working well it can be helpful to have a neutral, third party evaluate parent-child interaction patterns with a goal of creating a treatment plan to change things for the better.