Emotional & Mental Health
Maintaining Your Child’s Mental Health
Gauging Your Children’s Mental Health
You wonder if your kindergartener’s spending long periods of time alone in his room is normal. How many times does your teen have to throw her math book against the wall before you know her problem is not quadratic equations? Your college sophomore stopped texting you—should you worry?
Lurking beneath your child’s emotional meltdowns are the questions:
- What is mental health?
- What’s normal?
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What Is Mental Health?
Our thoughts and feelings influence our actions—how we perceive ourselves and others, how we communicate, how we learn and mature, and how we face obstacles. Crises, life transitions, hurts, and other negative forces often can challenge a child’s sense of well-being.
The University of Michigan describes a helpful mental health continuum that moves from mental health to mental problems and diagnosable mental illness. Our responses move along this continuum from mild and temporary, to moderate, disabling, long-lasting distress.
Famous psychotherapist Alfred Adler once said, “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” When problems arise in your family, you may be tempted to think the family next door has their act together. But take heart—you know your children best, and it’s their normal that matters most.
The opposite temptation is to think your family is the standard for normal. As you might expect, “normal” is a moving target. The mental health continuum is fluid and changeable, depending on how you manage stresses at any given time.
You have probably already equipped yourself for positive parenting by reading books such as Ages & Stages: A Parent’s Guide to Normal Childhood Development (birth to 10 years) or The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development. However, there are many other resources to help you lay a strong foundation for your children’s mental health. Contact your child’s school counselors, get support at your local community center, or tap into your local library’s endless supply of knowledge.
Preventing Mental Health Problems
You could think of laying a strong foundation for your children’s mental health as problem prevention. You can’t prevent a playground bully from punching your third-grader, or a cyberbully from threatening your high school senior.
However, a strong foundation of love, protection, praise, encouragement, and open communication will help keep your child in the mild, temporary distress area of the continuum. Then you can work on helping them process the anger and fear that an event like being bullied produces.
Signs of Possible Problems
You are in the best position to spot troublesome behaviors in your child. For example:
- Does fear paralyze them?
- Have they seemed sad and unusually quiet for longer than two weeks?
- Have friendships changed? Do they seem moody and no longer want to talk with best friends? Do they suddenly abandon old friends to hang out with new ones?
- Have they lost interest in eating?
- Have they begun having headaches or stomachaches?
- Do they seem unable to finish tasks or pay attention to a lesson or a conversation?
The Mayo Clinic has a more comprehensive list of behaviors that might signal that your child is mentally or emotionally struggling.
When the Problem Persists
You invite your child or teen to talk with you about the behaviors you’ve noticed. Even if you identify the source of distress and discuss problem-solving options, you notice that their frustration levels don’t lessen.
If you think your child’s mental state might be in the moderate to disabling distress sections of the mental health continuum, you could try stress management techniques. Stress management is a set of skills it takes us all a lifetime to learn.
Stress Management Techniques and Resources
Parents can help their children through rough patches in many ways. For example, you can:
- participate in family counseling, which can help the whole family understand the child’s distress and interact sensitively
- help your child practice asking for what they want or need
- serve nutritious, balanced meals
- ask your child’s school for appropriate support
- plan relaxing, fun activities to help everyone let off a little steam
Relaxing, Fun Activities
How about these ideas for family fun?
- Take younger kids to the park to run and play or fly a kite. Ride bikes together. Encourage creativity with sidewalk chalk or imagining your couch is a sailboat.
- Go to the zoo with older kids, then have a photo contest with the animals they captured on their cameras.
For more ideas, read a book like The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids: Help for Children to Cope with Stress, Anxiety, and Transitions. Or Google the types of activities your family especially enjoys.
When Stress Management Is Not Enough
Children of any age can face disabling mental illness. For example, a doctor might diagnose depression or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The American Psychological Association estimates that 39 to 85 percent of children have witnessed violence, while 25 to 43 percent of youths have been exposed to sexual abuse, and a smaller percent have been exposed to disasters. Even a dog bite or near-drowning can have lasting effects on a child’s mental state, similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome experienced by war veterans.
You’re Not Alone
When your child’s response to life’s stresses disrupts their lives more than temporarily, it’s time to seek help. Teachers and school counselors can be helpful resources for support. Your child’s doctor may offer suggestions for diagnosis, professional psychotherapy, or medications.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) gives information on treatments and other forms of support. To keep expectations realistic, NAMI cautions that “Recovery is a process, not an event.” So gather your team, and begin your child’s journey to mental health with hope.