Children's good mental health begins with parents
Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano | 07.10.13
Mental health is one of the keystones of childhood development, but difficult to gauge. The World Health Organization defines general health as “physical, mental and social well-being”. This means parents need to be as cognizant of a child’s mental status as they are of a child’s physical condition. It starts with understanding what constitutes children's good mental health.
What is Mental Health?
The “good mental health” of a child is a very elusive concept, because kids are always changing.
The average person on the street might associate poor mental health with the pejorative term of being “crazy”. For example, people with mental health disorders that make it difficult for them to regulate behavioral and emotional responses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, may be insensitively pinned with the “crazy” label.
Good mental health goes beyond the absence of mental illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of well-being that involves:
- Being able to recognize a person’s own abilities
- Coping with normal stressors
- Working productively
- Contributing to society
The “good mental health” of a child is a very elusive concept, because kids are always changing. Appropriate behavior at one stage of development may be a sign of a mental disorder at another; a three-year-old who has developed limited self-regulation and coping skills may throw a temper tantrum when denied something they want, which is considered typical for his or her stage of development. On the other hand, a sixteen-year-old who demonstrates the same level of self-regulation and coping skills as they did as a three-year-old when denied something they want, is not typical for his or her stage of development. Also, for young people, self-image, managing peer pressure and accepting diversity while maintaining a desire to learn are all factors that affect mental health. Finally, the extent to which someone is mentally healthy is not about nature vs. nurture as much as it is a balance of both. Good mental health is influenced by biology, sociology, and the physical environment.
Self-awareness begins at a very young age.
Why Is Children's Good Mental Health Important?
Self-awareness begins at a very young age. A baby tries to make sense of his or her body by investigating every part. As children grow older, they learn to compare what they see in themselves to what they see in others in their world. Mental problems may be considered as weeds looking to take root. If parents allow them to grow, they will smother the garden.
In 2000, the Surgeon General estimated there were as many as 15 million young people with some type of mental disorder. That number is growing at an alarming rate. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is currently the leading cause of death in children and young adults ages 15 to 24.
What Can Parents Do to Raise Awareness of and Help Prevent Mental Health Problems?
Mental illness can be a challenge to identify because the modern child faces obstacles at a different level then his or her parents did. Bullying in the academic arena is not new, but it is more pervasive today than it was even 10 years ago, and we much more aware of the detrimental effects bullying has on a child’s mental health. Furthermore, bullying through the cyber arena is new, and potentially more harmful. The means through which children socialize have also changed from primarily playing with classmates on the school playground and in neighborhood yards to interacting virtually through texting, or on social networking or gaming sites. Add to that the increased exposure to violence and inappropriate body images in the mass media, and it is not difficult to understand why today’s kids struggle to establish and maintain good mental health.
Certainly, parents cannot completely shield their children from the world; there will always be potentially harmful influences that are beyond parental control. However, there are measures that can be taken to minimize a child’s risk of developing problematic mental health symptoms or disorders.
First and foremost, a child's good mental health starts with how a parent perceives and responds to them. Especially in early to middle childhood, children want to please their adult caregivers more than anything else. This continues to be true, even with the interfering desire to conform to the norms of social groups and to strive for independence that comes with the teenage years. Fostering acceptance and love in the home from birth will help facilitate a positive self-image that will help transcend potential pitfalls that tempt adolescents to make decisions that put their mental health at risk. Keeping the lines of communication open, and learning how to talk to kids in a way that doesn’t include bribes, sarcasm or nagging, are also extremely important to keep in mind.
An allowance offers children a sense of personal accomplishment and self-reliance.
Parents can be powerful catalysts in fostering self-acceptance and strong self-esteem by encouraging and helping kids explore interests and talents, while also teaching them the importance of setting realistic goals and productive ways of achieving them. For example, by providing their children with the opportunity to regularly earn an allowance through the completion of simple but necessary chores around the house, parents can offer their children a sense of personal accomplishment and self-reliance. Through this process, parents can help children establish a budget, including how much of the money earned they want to save and spend. Children can then achieve a goal of buying an item that is of importance to them by using the money they earned.
In the age of potentially harmful influences that can come through the use of electronics and engagement in the cyber world, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children spend no more than two hours in front of a screen daily. That covers social networking, gaming and watching TV. The key for parents is setting standards and limitations on electronic and internet use. As an alternative, parents can encourage and provide opportunities to engage in other activities, such as playing outside, exploring hobbies, reading books about topics of interest, and establishing play dates.
Communities are also increasingly creating systems to help improve the mental health of children.
Other alternatives may include taking advantage of options available in the community as well. Many communities offer recreation centers, library programs, and special interest groups (e.g., yoga, Lego building, Scouting). Communities are also increasingly creating systems to help improve the mental health of children, including counseling services.
There is no easy answer, but being a parent is about more than just providing the basic necessities of life, such as clothing, housing, and food. It is important for parents to remember that children are not little adults with the judgment and social reasoning capabilities that typically come little later in life. When it comes to promoting good mental health in children, children and adolescents need guidance, instruction, and appropriate role models. Parents need to interact in a loving and accepting way toward their children, set and enforce appropriate boundaries with respect to social influences, communicate with their kids regularly, take interest in their activities, and promote the development and achievement of realistic goals. In doing so, parents can be assured that they are, at the very least, giving their children important advantages that will go far toward facilitating good mental health.
About Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano
Dr. Grisolano is a pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in helping children and their families conquer problems with learning, attention, behavior and emotions. She is also a certified school psychologist who understands the many ways in which neurodevelopmental disorders can create challenges that are barriers to a child’s learning and development.
Dr. Grisolano has extensive clinical practice in school psychology, neuropsychological evaluation and behavioral assessment. She is an experienced college professor, published researcher and accomplished presenter.