Every day in the news we see headlines about mental health, including the increased rate of suicide, depression and more. This leads to many parents asking us, “How can we help our children?” In recognition of National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day on May 9, here are a few tips for parents and caregivers – and other adults who can help support the children around them.
For Parents and Caregivers:
Spend quality time with your kids. No matter the age of your child, it’s important to connect with them. Caregivers have greater influence on their children’s lives if they spend quality time with them. Find time during car rides, at the dinner table and other times that feel unhurried and relaxed. Plan special days together. Having regular and enjoyable contact is one great way to prevent or reduce the impact of mental health issues.
Maintain conversations with your child. The way you have these conversations will change as your child matures. Young children might respond to simple questions such as, “What fun thing did you do today?” For older kids, it’s normal for them not to share as much. You could role model by sharing a thought or safe feeling with your teen and they may respond in kind.
Just be thoughtful not to judge a difference of opinion, rather, be curious and interested. It may be necessary to have difficult, but direct, conversations with your child. By starting and maintaining an open dialogue at a young age, they are more natural and easier to have as your child gets older. View some dos and don’ts when discussing mental health.
Be present. You can’t always solve your child’s problem. But, if you calmly acknowledge his or her challenges and reinforce your connection to them, it will encourage your children to have conversations with you.
Encourage emotional literacy and coping skills — and model them. The ability to regulate our emotions is critical to function in the real world. Children learn these skills through their daily interactions with adults, as they are constantly observing how we interact with one another. Serve as a role model so your children develop these skills.
Provide positive reinforcement and affirmation. Children and adolescents learn something new every day. Encouragement and positive reinforcement goes a long way in building them up, and is much more effective than punishing negative behaviors.
Establish routines, boundaries and consistency. Especially in early development, structure provides us with the tools to manage frustration. It also lets us know the world is safe and predictable. In addition, maintaining consistency reinforces a sense of trust. All are important to our mental health.
Provide appropriate supervision. As we know, more challenges present themselves as children get older. Balance trust and age-appropriate independence with a real need to monitor youth activity to ensure safety and accountability. This includes their technology use, academics, who they are having relationships with, drug use, etc. Setting and reinforcing clear limits, checking in and knowing your child’s temperament will guide you in knowing when something is “off.”
Collaborate and build relationships. It’s important to build relationships with other adults and professionals who play a role in your child’s life. These include school personnel, pediatricians, religious leaders, coaches… any natural and positive supports in your community or family system.
Promote a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise and good sleep practices contribute to positive mental health for everyone. They also reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Engage in your own self-care! Parenting is hard, so take care of yourself. Not only does this role model for your child the need for self-care, but allows you to be a more present and supportive caregiver.
Helping our children’s mental health is something EVERYONE can do — not just parents and caregivers.
Be a mentor and a role model. Find opportunities to mentor in local schools and organizations through your work or community involvement. Your time and attention can make a difference in the life of a child.
Help make your neighborhood safe. Look out for other kids in your neighborhood.
Acknowledge and show interest in kids around you. Engage them in conversations. Take time to get to know them.
Support family and child promoting policies at your work and in the community. Advocate or support policies that offer flex time, job sharing or allow work away from the office to promote family values and work-life balance.
Be an advocate for kids! Looking for ideas? View our ways to get involved.
Dr. Nancy Cunningham is a psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital who has provided child and adolescent clinical services and overseen program development in their behavioral health department.
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