Many of us wish we could return to our childhood when times seemed simpler and responsibilities were few and far between. And yet, mental health disorders remain the most common disease among children in the United States. An estimated 49.5% of American youth will have a diagnosable mental illness before the age of 18.
This correlates to about 17.1 million of the United States’ children having a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. That’s more children than the number who have cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.
When we look at the numbers, not every childhood is as rosy as it may first seem. So how can we support our kids’ mental health and give them the best chance at happiness during childhood and beyond?
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Today, we’re taking a look at steps you can take to help equip your kid with mental health skills to last a lifetime.
Tantrums & Emotional Self-Regulation
One of the earliest opportunities to support your child’s mental health comes from understanding temper tantrums. Even if temper tantrums aren't a huge issue for your child, you’ve probably witnessed one from a family member’s child or even your child’s classmate at daycare. We expect to see temper tantrums from children ages 1-3 years.
As children age, we expect their meltdowns to become less frequent as they are better able to communicate their wants and needs. This results from children learning to self-regulate their emotions.
Some children take longer to learn how to self-regulate. Specific mental health conditions including anxiety and ADHD can make learning how to self-regulate emotions even harder.
Matthew Rouse, Ph.D., explains that emotional control and self-regulation depend on your child's temperament and learned behavior. While some children are innately self-soothing, others are not. Parents can also negatively affect a child’s ability to self-regulate by giving in to tantrums.
Dr. Rouse explains that doing so positions the parent as an “external self-regulator.” Children can then learn that self-regulation can be outsourced, which negatively affects their overall temperament and independence.
Validation & Kids’ Mental Health
So how can we help our children learn to self-regulate and understand their emotions? And how do we do so without giving in to tantrums and teaching incorrect lessons? Validating your child’s feelings and talking through their tantrums is a great way to teach self-regulation, independence, and comfort.
First, you’ll have to do your best to identify why a specific tantrum is being thrown. This can be easy in some situations when a child’s toy is taken away or when they are hungry. But children also throw tantrums when they are feeling stressed or worried, which is harder to identify. Your young child likely doesn’t have the words to explain to you what they are feeling.
You can begin to teach them this by modeling how to speak about feelings and conflict. When playing a game with your child, over-communicate what you are thinking and feeling. Use simple words to get your message across.
Instead of exclaiming that that lasagna was prepared perfectly, say that the lasagna tastes good and makes you happy. If your child throws toys, tell them that the resulting mess makes you sad.
Pair this with offering descriptive words for your child’s feelings as well. If they eat a vegetable they don’t like and wrinkled their nose in disgust, ask if the food tastes bad or is not yummy. When they throw a tantrum, tell them that they appear to be angry or mad and ask them if they are.
Over time, your toddler will learn which words associate with which actions, experiences, and facial expressions. This will help them learn to express themselves and feel more secure and stable in their experiences. By seeing you live life as an emotion-having person, your child will learn that they are valid for having ups and downs as well.
Keep in mind that even with the best parenting, some children may still need professional help to learn to self-regulate. There is no shame in asking for more help from a qualified children’s counselor or therapist.
Creating Safe Spaces & Security
Teaching your child how to identify and describe feelings is essential for their independence and self-regulation. However, we all have varying levels of comfort in sharing feelings and thoughts. This is true for your child, too!
As your child ages, don’t expect them to share every single aspect of their feelings or thoughts with you. Instead, you’ll want to emphasize using words and mannerisms that you are available to listen to their thoughts if they feel the need to share.
You can do so by offering an ear at a regular time daily, or weekly. Share any thoughts or feelings you’ve been having recently that are appropriate for your kid’s ears as a sign that this is a space for personal connection without judgment from either side.
This is a great way to practice balancing an offer of emotional support with privacy and a sense of security.
Warning Signs of Children’s Mental Health
Mental Health America’s resource on youth mental health encourages fostering safe spaces for children alongside knowing the signs to watch out for when it comes to mental illness.
Some signs of mental health issues in kids can include excessive anger and the use of alcohol or drugs. Others include an inability to concentrate or sit still and talks about suicide or death. Occasionally giving off these signs may not immediately point to a mental health issue.
However, cultivating a home space that is open to discussion without judgment can help you and your child get outside help sooner when necessary.
Routine & Kids’ Mental Health
In addition to setting a regular open discussion table time with your child, helping them create a regular routine can directly help them stay focused and cultivate mental health.
Routines create structure and comfort in our lives, no matter our age. This is because routines keep us focused and help prevent surprises by giving us a backbone schedule to rely on. Ramon Solhkhah, M.D. in the Department of Psychiatry at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, spoke on this with Hackensack Meridian Health.
Dr. Solhkhah stated that routines help create a positive level of stress, and can even help diminish symptoms of depression during the COVID pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in regular work and school schedules being overturned for at-homes.
The shift back to in-office work and in-person schooling is just as jarring for kids as it is for adults. Experts like Dr. Solhkhah encourage us to reestablish routine wherever possible, even if it's in smaller ways.
Establishing a Routine & Calendar
So how can we help our children create and stick to routines without being overbearing? After all, forcing anyone to abide by a schedule that they have no say in will result in additional stress. Chores may be completed, but your child will learn nothing about responsibility and taking comfort in routine.
One of my favorite solutions to encouraging responsibilities in kids without nagging is the incorporation of calendar responsibility charts. Invite your child to have a discussion about each activity they do in a day, from brushing their teeth to doing homework and taking out the trash.
Ask them to identify what time of day they usually perform each task, and use these discussions to start building a daily routine for them, together. Writing down this routine in a responsibility chart is a great way to ensure that everyone is on the same page after discussing.
Reusable Magnetic Routine Charts
Here at Mighty + Bright, I’ve created a variety of magnetic and wall-ready calendars and daily charts to help with this. Our Daily + Weekly Calendar Kit includes 2 magnetic charts and 34 magnets signifying school needs, household chores, back-to-school activities, and daily routine reminders.
While you can plan a routine together with pen and paper, pieces of paper are easily lost or can only be held by one person. Having a readily accessible (and dry-erase-ready) responsibility chart on your fridge or corkboard is a great way to keep each other accountable for tasks and reminders.
You can pick up a few additional boards to help plan for unusual weeks, or to plan your own schedule, too. It can be great to show your child that you are not exempt from having a schedule to rely on and be proud of, too.
Cultivating a Sense of Accomplishment in Kids
Chores, schoolwork, and general must-dos are essential to teaching responsibility and routine in children. But creating a sense of self-esteem and accomplishment in kids is equally important.
Some children may find true self-worth through schoolwork or academics. But many find this sense of accomplishment and self in extracurricular activities. As your child ages, nap and recess times in school will decrease to make room for more classes. This can result in pent-up energy and a lack of focus throughout the school day.
After-school activities are a great solution to child boredom and to relieve stress and energy. Most after-school activities are also tied to at least one skill. Sports and art-related activities may hold the most obvious paths toward skill progression. Competitions, awards, and even college scholarships can be won with these skills.
After-school activities related to volunteering, or shared interests in a TV show can be equally as beneficial for giving your kids a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and belonging among peers.
No matter what your child decides to participate in outside of school, remain positive and encouraging in their choice. Ask how you may be able to support them. And once they come home with that sparkle in their eyes, you’ll know that that sense of self-worth is really starting to prosper!
The Mental Health Stigma
Mental health conditions can be debilitating and even lead to death in extreme situations. In addition to these challenges, stigma against individuals with mental health disorders is still prevalent today. Many individuals even believe that mental health disorders are not real at all. Some say mental illnesses are weaknesses blown out of proportion and “easy excuses to be lazy.”
When supporting your child’s mental health, you’ll have to prepare them for a world that doesn’t respect mental health on the same level as physical health.
Bernice Pescosolido, Ph.D., a researcher at Indiana University, published research exploring mental health stigma. Dr. Pescosolido found that 68% of Americans do not want someone with a mental illness marrying into their family.
The same study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found that 58% of Americans do not want to work alongside co-workers with mental illnesses.
This can be for a variety of reasons. Some mental illnesses result in communication difficulties. This can bring judgment from peers. Others incorrectly believe that people with mental illnesses are inherently violent.
If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, it will be important to connect them with a professional. Professional counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists can help them maneuver through symptoms. But it may be equally as important to educate them on the value of mental health and how this value is lacking in the general populace.
Supporting Kids’ Mental Health
Kids’ mental health is a complicated and sometimes taboo subject. It’s easier to talk about shiny new kids’ toys than it is to talk about the risks of child depression, after all. But fear can only be removed through knowledge and asking for help when necessary.
When supporting your kids’ mental health, remember that much like physical health, mental health is a lifelong journey. Giving your kids the proper tools to use will go a long way. This includes offering words of comfort and teaching communication skills. Working together on a routine and employing a professional when necessary is also important.
Here at Mighty + Bright, my mission is to equip you with the tools necessary to have important discussions with your kids. Learn more about the Mighty + Bright Method to help your child navigate our sometimes difficult lives.