Over the last couple of years, child mental health has been big news. News that the pandemic has had a devastating effect on their mental wellbeing and development continues to circulate on a daily basis.
We still don’t know the exact number of children battling issues like anxiety and depression, but according to The Children’s Society, 1 in 6 children aged 5-16 are likely to have a mental health problem and in the last three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by 50%. Meanwhile, some 40% of 2,267 parents surveyed by Action for Children said their children’s emotional well-being was a primary concern.
But on a practical level, how can parents support children’s mental health? In the second in our three-part series with Dr Alison McClymont, leading child psychologist with over a decade worth of experience at the forefront of children’s mental health, we take a closer look at child mental health tips every parent should know.
9 child mental health tips every parent should know
Resilience is a way of life
When we talk about promoting resilience in children, what we are actually describing is maintaining a positive attitude in the face of unknown circumstances. We can help children to do this by reminding them just because something is unknown, doesn’t mean the outcome will be negative. Also past performance doesn’t always predict the future- anytime is a good time to “try”.
We can say:
“I understand that didn’t go the way you wanted, but tomorrow is a new day”
“I’m so proud of you, that showed real courage”
Being adaptable to learning promotes mental wellbeing
So often children get frustrated with the experience of learning- so do adults! As a parent who recently taught a 5-year-old how to ride a bike, I fully empathise with the frustration of teaching and also the struggle of watching a child grapple with “failure”.
But we can remind children that everyone and everything in life begins from the “start”, we can show children examples of their favourite athlete or celebrity and consider with them, all the things that person had to learn and experience to get where they are. Learning is discovered in triumph and failure, and we can model an open attitude to this by being frank about our own “failures” and celebratory of our own triumphs.
We can say:
“Everyone who is a teacher, was once a student”
“Wow that person must have really had to spend a long time practicing to get that good”
Others are impacted by our actions
Little children and adolescents (!) are often living in their own small mental sphere and are not fully cognisant of how their actions can impact others. This might be the source of arguments at home- for example the child who was asked to do the chores but ignores them, or the adolescent who responds rudely or moodily. But it helps them to develop empathy and build better relationships by reminding them that their actions can have either a negative or positive impact on how others feel
We can say:
“When you did that washing up earlier, it made me feel really supported. Thank you”
“When you speak to me like that, it makes me feel sad and confused”
Sometimes it’s not about us….
Contrary to the tip above…sometimes, children just simply lack the cognitive ability, social maturity or understanding to acknowledge what they are doing. This does not necessarily reflect on us as parents, it’s just the child is having one of those days. Equally important is to acknowledge that whilst a child may share our traits and they may even share similarities in life experience… they are not us.
We are separate beings, and we are an actor in the theatre of their life, not the director, and not the writer. Overidentifying or over-critiquing children in relation to our own experiences is a potentially damaging process as it does not encourage what psychologists call “self actualisation”- the experience of accepting and enjoying one’s full potential as an individual.
Times to blame the hormones
Any parent of an adolescent will relate to the statement “sometimes it’s like they don’t even think!” Well yes, kind of, current literature suggests that a brains “control panel”- the frontal lobe is not fully developed or formed until the mid 20s, hence the impulsive, erratic and “damn the consequences” type behaviour teenagers engage in. However all of the emotion centre- the limbic system is fully engaged by the age of 12, so here we have a fully firing emotional centre but with a dysfunctioning control panel that manages judgment, impulse, and self-control. A heady mix for dramatic showdowns!
A good sleep/diet goes a long way
Sleep is absolutely key to brain health, it helps to detox the cells, stimulate growth and relax the nervous system- it is essential to optimum function and children should be aiming for between 8-12 hours a night depending on their age. The same goes for diet- there are so many studies linking gut health to mental health, and brain function to hydration and diet. Yes, it’s hard to get them to eat oily fish and greens, or for teenagers to turn off the devices and get a full night’s sleep… but it’s vital for their growth and happiness.
Trauma is different from adversity
Adversity such as overcoming a fear or conquering a past failure can be the path to emotional development and growth. But trauma, in the form of bereavement, bullying, or divorce requires more careful handling, you can encourage growth and learning post-trauma, but if you are noticing symptoms in your child such as withdrawing from social environments, excessive nightmares, changes in sleep/eating/toilet habits or aggression- it might be time to consult a GP for a professional referral
Anger is a tricky emotion
Anger is by far, the most misunderstood and poorly handled emotion, in my experience. I like to remind children that “anger is OK. Aggression is not”- this helps children to differentiate between voicing anger, which is a healthy expression of boundaries and very useful emotion, as opposed to verbal or physical abuse of another or oneself. The latter is never OK.
We can say:
“You can be angry, but I can’t let you hurt yourself or anyone else”
“It’s ok to feel angry, anger reminds us that we matter and our feelings are important”
Shame is an even trickier one
It is sometimes said that guilt is the feeling that you have done something wrong and shame is the feeling that YOU are wrong. Shame is an insidious and destructive emotion and may occur for a number of different reasons, it can stunt social learning, promote unhealthy behaviours such as aggression or bullying of others, or self-destructive thoughts that damage self-esteem and confidence. It’s so important to remind your child that they are special and loved, and even if you are angry- you are angry at the behavior NOT them
We can say:
“What you did was naughty, but you are not naughty”
“I am disappointed with your behavior, but I am not disappointed in you”
“I love you all of the time- the angry times, the sad times, the happy times, the naughty behavior times. No matter how angry I seem, my love for you never changes”
About Dr Alison McClymont
Dr Alison McClymont is a leading child psychologist with over a decades worth of experience at the forefront of children’s mental health. Keep up to date with her on social media @AlisonMcClymontInsta.
Cover picture credit: Background photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com
Yes! These are wonderful tips to keep in mind. Parenting is no joke. I have two boys. One will be 11 and I have seen a range of emotions as he matures. It’s not easy being a parent these days with all the technology and social media. Their mental health is so important. Thanks for the tips.
I am not a parent, yet, but these are great mental health tips for children. I can apply these even without being a parent. Sleep and diet are huge! I try and go to bed and wake up around the same time everyday, regardless of weekends and holidays. I feel so much better when I do that.
Thank you so much for sharing this. So many people think that mental illness is relegated to adulthood, but children can and do experience mental health issues, as well.
These are all wonderful tips and a lot of things I can use to work with my boys. They are 6 and 8 so I think a lot of this will resonate with them right now.
This is a great list of tips. I will definitely use some of these with my kids.
Mental health is not an easy thing to teach kids. As a new parent, we don’t know what to say and how to handle it but thanks for these tips. I really find them helpful
I am not a parent yet but i think it’s important to know and prioritize kid’s mental health, especially these days. I love your tips. If there’s one thing I can teach my kids, it’s gonna be resilience.
Kids mental health is very important. This was such a useful read. Thanks for sharing/
I think as adults, we should learn how to understand them more.. The tricky part is that most of these mental health problems are often undetected and signs were often overlooked. I think it is important to be aware as they need our support the most. I love all these approaches you mentioned and how to deal with each scenarios.
Great tips! I think it will be useful for new parents. I agree. Resilience is one trait that we should teach them.
Great tips. we definitely should know and be aware that others are impacted by what we do. Thank you for sharing these awesome tips!
I so much agree with you on the part of our actions, as adults, impacting on the mental health of children….and we may not even be aware of what we are doing to them! Thanks for highlighting these tips.