How You Can Care for
Your Child’s Mental Health
As a parent, you want to think of your child as well-adjusted and healthy. However, one out of six American children has a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. These problems are more common than you think and are no reason to feel ashamed. However, they are a call to action.
Fortunately, your actions can considerably influence your child’s emotional well-being. You are the center of their world when young and will continue to impact them well into adulthood. Set your little one up for success — here’s how you can care for your child’s mental health.
1. Play with Them
Please don’t think taking your children to the playground is a frivolous time waster. It’s crucial to their mental, physical and emotional development. Unstructured play promotes a positive mental outlook and helps children learn to manage conflict and overcome adversity without relying on their caregivers for help.
Therefore, build copious opportunities for play into your child’s schedule. Please avoid the temptation to fill every hour of their day with “productive” activities like school followed by soccer practice, then off to Bible study. Think about how you would feel if your boss demanded you work 12 hours a day every day while micromanaging your tasks each second. It wouldn’t be good for your mental health — and it’s not good for your child’s.
Other ways to encourage independent play in little ones include the following:
- Provide age-appropriate toys: You want sufficient stimulation — but not too much. A little challenge and a few choices are okay. However, you don’t need to go overboard on the science lab kits for 4-year-olds or stuff every corner of their room with playthings.
- Create child-safe play spaces: Your child should ideally have an indoor and outdoor play space where you can leave them unsupervised for a brief moment while answering the phone. The tiniest tots need a playpen; older children do well in a childproofed room. If you don’t have a fenced backyard for your kids to play, can you dedicate a corner of your deck or patio?
- Start by playing with your child: Instead of heading to the bench as soon as you reach the park or ordering your child to their room, start by playing with them. Once they become engrossed, you can gracefully bow out.
- Keep quiet time positive: Encourage quiet play time as a positive thing from a young age. Instead of using time-outs as a punishment, build them into your routine. You can even model this behavior, saying, “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed or tired — I’m going to go read or color for a half-hour.”
2. Help Them Form a Secure Attachment
What is attachment theory? All infants are helpless when born, getting their needs met by calling attention to themselves. Children form a secure attachment if their earliest caregivers respond to their cries with comfort. They might feel distressed when initially separated from their parents but quickly bounce back and continue their daily activities.
However, caregivers who ignore their children’s cries or respond inconsistently nurture one of the three insecure attachment styles:
Anxious: These children tend to get clingy, manifesting extreme separation anxiety. They may “clutch their parent’s coattails” in a desperate attempt to feel safe and protected.
Avoidant: These children turned to self-soothing through healthy or unhealthy means after realizing they couldn’t rely on their parents. They show little distress at separation and often ignore them when reunited.
Disorganized: These children never develop a predictable attachment style. They may cling one moment and push people away the next.
Children with insecure attachments struggle in life. They may have difficulty forming healthy relationships, impacting their career, social and marital spheres.
You can encourage secure attachment by responding to your child without coddling them. If your child manifests distress, start by validating their feelings, “I can see you’re very upset. What’s going on?” Help them identify their emotions and brainstorm healthy ways to manage them.
3. Teach Them About Emotions
Feelings are simply that — emotions. They aren’t necessarily reflective of reality or passions you need to act on — but your child doesn’t understand this principle without your guidance.
You can use feelings charts and picture books to help your child label their emotions. Have regular sessions when you feel calm — perhaps while reading to your child before bed — to discuss what to do with challenging feelings. For example, you might say, “So-and-so character looks pretty angry. What are some safe ways you can express your rage and frustration?”
4. Practice Mindfulness
Perhaps you use mindfulness methods to manage your mental health. Guess what? These techniques have no age limit. Teach them to your little one as practices for managing their emotion and keeping their ship upright among life’s storms.
For example, why not introduce your little one to the mindful chocolate-eating exercise? Nearly all kids love candy, and you can use this tool to teach them to slow down, remain in the moment and pay attention to what’s happening in their bodies when they eat. You may help them develop a healthier relationship with food as a bonus.
Kids can do yoga — just use age-appropriate terms. An energizing vinyasa workout might help them get the wiggles out before they meditate for one minute, which can feel like a lifetime to the most energetic youngsters. Teaching them to sit patiently in silence is a valuable life skill.
5. Consider Professional Interventions
Although you might rank first in your child’s list of influences, the world impacts them, too. Plus, each child has unique neurobiology, and your brain can become sick like any other organ. If your little one exhibits signs of trouble, consider professional help.
Obtaining health care is far easier before your child reaches their 18th birthday. Please don’t worry about the stigma — you’re doing your child a favor by helping them identify ongoing problems early. Many people seek therapy every day for reasons that have nothing to do with severe mental illness, such as overcoming shyness or coping with challenging circumstances.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life
Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.
How to Care for Your Child’s Mental Health
You are the most important person in your child’s world. Your actions significantly impact their emotional well-being.
Follow the tips above to care for your child’s mental health. Taking care of their emotional needs sets them up for future life success.
About the Author
Ava Roman (she/her) is the Managing Editor of Revivalist, a women’s lifestyle magazine that empowers women to live their most authentic life. When Ava is not writing you'll find her in a yoga class, advocating for body positivity, whipping up something delicious in the kitchen, or smashing the patriarchy.