10 ways to nurture your child’s mental health
Being a parent is both the hardest, and greatest, job in the world. For children who have mental health difficulties, parenting can be even more difficult. So here are 10 ways you can help your child manage their mental health.
1. Active listening
One of the most powerful tools is your ability to listen actively. This means listening not just to respond, but listening to understand. This allows your child to feel heard. After listening to what your child says, paraphrase what your child says back to them (e.g. “So, you are saying that you don’t like it when I get angry about the mess in the kitchen?”). Many children get told what to do, but sometimes don’t have as many opportunities to feel heard. You don’t have to agree with what your child is telling you, you are still the adult, but simply being heard can make a world of difference to children.
2. Set and respect boundaries
Children feel very safe when they know there are limits and boundaries to protect them. They can also feel trapped and stifled if there are too many rules and then behave poorly. It is a difficult balance, but if your household can manage this, it will make life easier!
If your child is old enough to discuss boundaries and behaviour, involve them in the process – let them know you will introduce a few rules to make everyone’s lives easier and ask them if there are any reasonable rules that they would like to introduce too. Ask them what they feel are appropriate consequences for breaking those rules. Be consistent with the rules of the house – if no screen time is allowed in bedrooms after 8pm, then follow through with consequences for breaking the rule (e.g., do something like remove their iPad for a day). Make the message clear and try to keep calm if rules are broken. Consequences are important, but remember that punishment doesn’t always work. It might sound untrue, but evidence shows that it is much easier and effective to praise the good than punish the bad!
3. Be honest about your own mental health
Sometimes we are tempted to say “everything is fine”, to protect children from the realities and difficulties of everyday life, but seeing you struggle and overcome difficulties can help children to see how temporary problems are. Your resilience can be a powerful teaching tool for children. You don’t have to give them all your thoughts and adult-worries, but sharing your own feelings can also validate theirs. Use appropriate language to express your feelings and offer solutions to the problems if you can. (e.g. “I’ve been tired and stressed at work, which makes me a bit grumpy, so I might need some time to have a walk with you as that makes me feel better.”)
4. Respond calmly when emotions are high
At any age, emotions can rise and feel unmanageable, but emotions are just emotions, they are temporary. Often a tantrum, meltdown, swearing, and/or screaming session are only happening because emotions feel too big to manage. It is very difficult to see your child suffer, but remaining calm and neutral when emotions are heightened is the best first step. Let them know that discussions about this can take place later and that they might need a safe place to cry it out and that you will be there for them. If you do respond by yelling or arguing, be kind to yourself – it’s challenging to stay calm when faced with someone being irrational. Try and review the underlying issue when things are calmer as best you can.
5. Model healthy behaviours
Little humans (in their early years particularly) will look to you for cues about how to behave. It can be quite daunting (and delightful!) to see them mirror your behaviours, gestures, and phrases back to you. It’s hard to always be a role model for children and no one expects perfection, but if you maintain a healthy balance you might see a reflection of yourself that you’re thrilled with.
6. Have family time
It is so hard to find a work life balance (even without children in the mix), so remember that even small moments count. If you can, try and put aside some time to be with your family without distractions. Dinnertime is often a great time for this and can even be one of the suggested boundaries or house rules – for example, no screen time at dinner, just family time. If this doesn’t work for your family, you could have a movie night or a walk together every day.
7. Think about personality fit and family dynamics
One of the hardest things to face as a parent is not understanding your children. Sometimes, personalities are just very different, and what we like and dislike might be the exact opposite of children’s likes and dislikes. This is normal. This is common. Not every child is a miniature version of their parents. What can help is to think about these personality differences and work out alternative expectations. What this means is that your version of parenting may need to change as time goes on. In other words, parenting involves recalibration. You might have a child who is more willful than you would like, which will require you to negotiate more than you would enjoy. You might have a child who is very shy and introverted and who really doesn’t want to join in with the clubs, playdates and activities you have organised for them (because that’s what you liked doing when you were a kid). It’s hard to face at times, but sometimes, the dynamics in the family need to be tackled head on and compromises made.
8. Your child is their own person
All parents love their children. But sometimes you might find that your love means you come to see your children as an extension of yourself. That is normal – you want them to have the pleasant experiences you had as a child, you want them to avoid the unpleasant experiences you had, you want them to be accomplished and to do well. You might encourage them in their homework, read them the books you loved, and guide them away from the experiences you want them to avoid… but just remember, they are not you. They have their own lives, their own experiences to enjoy, and their own mistakes to make. Loving them for this can make all the difference.
9. No, it isn’t all your fault!
More and more, research evidence tells us that nature, not nurture, is the major contributor to adult personality. This is not to say that parents play no role, but whether your child is shy or extroverted, anxious or outgoing, agreeable or disagreeable, is more likely to do with who they are as people, not you.
10. Be a good enough parent
Perfectionism is bad enough at work. Striving for perfection in human relationships is simply folly. No one is perfect and perfection in parenting simply does not exist. And the goal posts keep changing – the definition of a good parent changes from generation to generation. Who’s to say what’s best? Do what works. Be pragmatic. Be the good enough parent. You will make mistakes. You are human. Parenting is tough – if you have managed to keep your little one alive for another day, well done.