How to Support Your Child’s Mental Health
Most parents excel at keeping their kids physically healthy. They work to ensure they are eating well, getting their immunizations, and staying physically active. But a child’s emotional and mental well-being is just as important to their quality of life as being physically healthy.
Supporting your child’s mental health—just as you would their physical health—helps your child develop the resilience they need to deal with obstacles while growing into well-rounded and mentally healthy adults.
“Our mental health is connected to every aspect of our lives such as our physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being,” says Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC, CEDS-S, a licensed professional counselor with Choosing Therapy. “Each of these aspects of our lives are interrelated. If/when one or more areas are impacted, our mental health is likely to be adversely affected.”
Why a Child’s Mental Health Is Important
When a child has good mental health, they are able to think clearly, make friends, and learn new things. They also develop self-confidence, build self-esteem, practice perseverance, learn to set goals, practice making decisions, learn coping skills, manage difficult emotions, and develop a healthy emotional outlook on life.
Learning these skills is not always easy and takes practice, especially if your child has a mental health issue like depression or anxiety. In fact, experiencing mental health issues is not that uncommon.
According to the American Psychological Association, an estimated 15 million young people in the US are diagnosed with a mental health disorder and many more are at risk of developing a disorder.1
Left untreated, these mental health issues can have a significant impact on a child’s life. Elementary school children with mental health issues are more likely to miss school and they are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers. Meanwhile, 50% of affected high school students eventually drop out of school.2 Plus, there are long-term consequences to consider as well, like other mental disorders or chronic medical conditions.2https://6429dde63ee53db13871bfcd80d65f10.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
“Also, early life mental health issues can lead to mental health and/or substance abuse disorders in adulthood,” explains Heath. “It is crucial that children are taught effective coping skills to avoid the use of ineffective behaviors later in life…to manage emotion.
Parents can counteract these statistics by not only supporting their child’s mental health but also getting them the help they need when they are facing mental obstacles. Here is what you need to know about supporting your child’s mental health.
If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health issue contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
How Parents Can Support Mental Health
Being mentally healthy during childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, learning healthy social skills, and knowing how to cope with problems. Mentally healthy children have a good quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and in their communities.3
But being mentally healthy doesn’t just happen organically. Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in fostering good mental health, seeking support when it’s needed, and guiding their kids through life. Here are some ways to support your child’s mental health.
Show Unconditional Love
One of the most important ways to support your child’s mental health is to show unconditional love, says Jenni Torres, MEd, a former teacher and senior vice president of curriculum and instruction for nonprofit Waterford.org. Regularly let your kids know that no matter what they are facing or dealing with that you love them unconditionally and that you are there for them.
Kids need to understand that we all make mistakes but that we can learn from these mistakes, she says. Make sure you are framing your child’s mistakes as a way of learning instead of communicating failure. Even if you are disappointed in a poor choice, your child should know that the disappointment you feel has no bearing on your love for them.
Praise Their Character
Encouragement, praise, and affirmations are all ways in which parents can not only build their child’s self-confidence and self-esteem but more importantly, support their mental health. Research shows that low self-esteem is associated with anxiety, depression, and academic stress, which all significantly affect a child’s quality of life. Low self-esteem can even lead to suicidal ideation.
Spend Time Together
Spending time together as a family not only strengthens family bonds but also gives parents much-needed face-time with their kids to learn what they are struggling with, and what their dreams are. It sends the message that your kids are important and that you care what’s happening in their lives. You also will be more likely to recognize issues in your child’s life if you are regularly spending time together.
“Parents can make time for their children by doing things like having family meals, taking walks together, completing projects together, assisting with homework, or playing games with one another,” says Heath.
Heath says you also should get to know your child’s friends. “Show your children that you care about the people they care about as well,” Heath says. Plus, you can provide input when they are in unhealthy relationships or friendships as well as guide them on how to be a healthy friend.
Talking on a consistent basis means you can help your child problem-solve difficult situations. You also can serve as a sounding board for them to talk about the emotions they are dealing with. “Open communication allows kids to feel free to explore their feelings,” Torres says. “Parents are more likely to notice when things are amiss if they are talking with their child consistently.”
Heath suggests asking open-ended questions. One place to start is to get them to share about their day after school, a party, or a special event. Getting your child to share these things—both the good and the bad—will provide opportunities for you to help them troubleshoot.
“One of the foundational needs of children is to feel safe,” adds Torres. “When kids feel safe, they develop appropriately and learn appropriately. There also is less likelihood of mental health challenges and when mental health challenges do occur, they are just biological consequences.”
One way to foster those feelings of safety and trust is to create an environment in your home where it is safe for your kids to discuss their feelings and struggles, says Heath. You can do that, she says, by being a good role model.
“Children learn by example,” Heath says. “If they see that it is acceptable to share struggles and challenges, they will be more likely to come to parents with their own.
When to Get Outside Help
Some experts estimate that only 21% of children with a mental health issue actually get the treatment they need.2 Although making the decision to seek the help of a mental health professional is not easy for parents, it is one that is wise.
“Often when we see something happening with our children, we can sometimes feel like we failed, which can stop us from seeking help,” says Torres. “But if we do take that step, we find out we are not alone, that others are experiencing the same things, and that we were not a failure. Instead of letting shame stop them, parents should take that step to speak up.”
Torres also believes that parents shouldn’t wait until things get bad or unmanageable before reaching out for help. Instead, she encourages them to be proactive about getting their child support so that they can learn healthy coping strategies, build resilience, and learn to manage difficult situations and emotions.
Signs Your Child May Need Outside Help
While every child experiences emotional ups and downs, there are some red flags that indicate that they may need to see a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Reach out to someone right away if your child displays any of these red flags:5
- Displays excessive worry or anxiety
- Appears less confident or feels bad about themselves
- Withdraws from you, their friends, or activities they used to enjoy
- Displays significant changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Struggles academically or has issues with friends
- Expresses hopelessness, seems depressed, or talks about suicide
- Engages in negative behaviors more often
- Talks about or participates in self-harming behaviors
- Participates in self-destructive behaviors or has issues with impulse control
- Seems overly irritable, emotional, or easily upset
- Makes comments like “Nobody would notice if I ran away”
Overall, if you are concerned about your child—even if their actions or attitude are not on this list—talk to a healthcare provider. They can help you determine what is normal and what is not based on your child’s age and development. And most importantly they can make sure your child gets the help they need.
A Word From Verywell
When it comes to your child’s mental health, it is important to be a consistent part of your child’s life, not only talking with them but spending time together as well. Your child’s mental health will benefit significantly from your involvement in their lives as well as your guidance, unconditional love, and your support.
By building trust, demonstrating strong communication skills, and being a good role model, you will have established a strong foundation for your child’s mental health. And remember, part of supporting your child’s mental health means getting them help or support when they need it.
You are the expert on your child. If they are acting in a way that seems strange or worrisome to you, talk to a healthcare provider. It is the most supportive and courageous thing you can do to get your child help when they need it, so don’t let fear or embarrassment keep you from reaching out. With proper treatment and intervention, they will learn to care for their mental well-being.
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