As parents, we’re trying to do a million things to promote the well-being of our children. Mental health, though, often gets short shrift.
Not all mental health disorders can be avoided (genetics do play a role here.) But their impact can be lessened, and in some cases, prevented altogether.
If you’re thinking, Oh, no, not one more thing I need to do, on top of making them do their homework, driving them to activities, etc.–good news. These tips aren’t time consuming, and they fit right in with the rest of your life. 1) Be a good listener, not just a good talker.
Your kids feel important because you really hear them, because they’re truly understood. A lot of parents feel that imparting wisdom is how kids feel valued, but it’s often the opposite: When they’re talked at, your children feel diminished.
Showing your children interest and curiosity develops their self-esteem, and that’s a strong prophylactic against depression and anxiety.
2) Identify kids’ feelings for them.
This might sound contrary to #1 but in fact, they go hand in hand. Often, kids can describe situations and feelings but they don’t know exactly what those feelings are or why they have sprung from the situation.
Helping them name the feeling and make those connections is crucial for emotional health. Separating “disappointment” from “worry” from “frustration” lets them figure out what to do about their feelings, instead of it becoming one big unmanageable ball.
3) Provide your children with outlets for their feelings.
This might be talking, or journaling, or hitting a punching bag. Or all of the above. Or others that work for you.
Think about what helps you and pass along that information (always in the form of a suggestion, because what works for you may or may not work for them, it should be their choice.) But encourage them to try a variety of methods. Model a variety of methods yourself.
4) If you notice problems, don’t minimize them. Don’t maximize them either.
What I mean is, you want to address what you see in a supportive, non-judgmental way. Tell your child what you’re noticing and why it concerns you. Listen carefully to their response. Then continue to monitor the situation to see if it’s improving or worsening.
Problems are easier to solve the newer they are. That’s because you don’t want negative coping strategies to become too entrenched.
There are some great workbooks out there that teach kids and teens how to handle their emotions. You can do these workbooks along with them, since the tools are useful for adults, too. This can be a source of bonding and also destigmatizes the process. Lawrence Shapiro, PhD has written some good ones.
5) Be aware of your own mental health.
Address any issues that you have, so that you will be emotionally present and available for your kids. Also, it’s incredibly valuable to model for your kids that people have problems, and they can work to solve them. Then you’re not just modeling your excellent mental health, but showing how you achieve (and maintain) it.