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Mental Health

How To Help Your Child Nurture Their Mental Health

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By Saloni Chaudhary
11 Mar'22  12 min read
How To Help Your Child Nurture Their Mental Health
Synopsis

Adolescence is a transitional stage of life that brings many emotional turbulences for families, making it especially difficult to get support for parents of children with mental illness and to nurture their mental health. This article highlights the physical, emotional, psychological, and social changes that adolescents go through, how to nurture good mental health in children by developing empathy and a non-judgemental stance through actively psycho-educating themselves, and how to help a child by equipping themselves with the right tools.

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How To Help Your Child Nurture Their Mental Health
Synopsis

Adolescence is a transitional stage of life that brings many emotional turbulences for families, making it especially difficult to get support for parents of children with mental illness and to nurture their mental health. This article highlights the physical, emotional, psychological, and social changes that adolescents go through, how to nurture good mental health in children by developing empathy and a non-judgemental stance through actively psycho-educating themselves, and how to help a child by equipping themselves with the right tools.

Read more

Adolescence is a sensitive, transitional phase of life that comes with sudden and rapid physiological and emotional changes in the child, setting the base for a wide range of mental health concerns and risk behaviours. The last two years have seen a significant rise in mental health awareness, especially around children and adolescents. However, ‘mental health interventions’ aren’t a one-size-fits-all, as they are proposed to be. Every stage of life brings different developmental landmarks and challenges, and so one of the most important aspects of nurturing a child’s mental health is psychoeducation for the parents. It is imperative to understand the physical, emotional, psychological, neurobiological, and social changes that mark this life stage, and its possible implications.

Fascinating and highly relevant neuroscience research provides evidence that a complete reorganisation of the brain takes place during adolescence, and various parts of the brain are still developing during this time. Interestingly, the rate of maturity of different parts of the brain is not the same - the limbic system (responsible for sexual arousal, learning, processing and regulating emotions, and formation and storage of memories ) and the reward system of the brain develop much earlier, while the prefrontal cortex (responsible for decision making, rational thinking, etc.) matures much later. This discrepancy leads to many erratic and risk-taking behaviours in teenagers, like substance abuse, dangerous driving, sexual risks, and physical violence, along with heightened emotional fluctuations and interpersonal conflicts.

This knowledge is essential in understanding the capricious, and potentially dangerous behaviour of teens, which can lead to a wide range of mental health concerns for them. It’s also imperative for parents to use this understanding to develop a base of empathy and compassion towards their children, informing every step they take to help their child nurture their mental health.

Nurturing Good Mental Health In Children

Some aspects of how parents can play a more supportive and inclusive role in their child's life are discussed below, with a view to increasing awareness, and making adolescence and parenting a slightly smoother journey for all involved.

Providing Secure Attachment To The Child

Teenage is an important time for parents to show safety and security to their children, whose lives are anyway full of tumultuous emotions and unpredictable events. Instead of labelling their emotional expressions as ‘aggressive’, ‘careless’ or ‘dysfunctional’, it may be helpful to see if they are actually ‘seeking comfort’. How parents respond to these emotional and seemingly irrational moments defines how secure the child feels in their attachment with the parents, and how confident he or she feels in facing the challenges of the world. In other words, a safe and secure attachment helps the child make sense of their emotions in a meaningful way, and sets the base for better self-regulation, better personal coping styles, and ultimately good emotional health, while also ensuring that parents know how to help a child with mental health issues.

Helping Children Think Beyond Themselves

We live in a society that’s increasingly becoming individualistic, with families becoming nuclear and losing touch with a sense of community at large. This individualistic nature of contemporary societies makes one hyper-focused on their own needs, desires, thoughts, and problems, which, in the long term can lead to inevitable anxieties. Humans are meant to thrive in communities and plan their lives around thinking for something beyond themselves. Encouraging children to develop this mindset can be hugely beneficial in helping them act in prosocial ways, which can bring great internal rewards. Planting trees in the community, volunteering for an NGO or a cause close to their heart, helping a neighbour, or taking out the time to feed stray animals can develop a sense of social awareness and empathy, while allowing them to see the impact and difference they can make with their actions.

Introduce Them To Nature

Many of us feel rejuvenated after a long walk in the park, or a day spent closer to nature. Research suggests that time outdoors has a profound positive impact on the regulation and reduction of the stress hormone, cortisol. It has been proven that more time outdoors helps reduce anxiety and depressive moods and also promotes feelings of awe, happiness, and peace, contributing to more creativity and curiosity in children. Organising family picnics in the park, or planning outdoor activities like cycling, and hiking as family rituals can greatly help in familiarising the child with the benefits of being in nature.

Help Them Find ‘Flow’

The flow state, or ‘being in the zone’, is a concept given by the famous psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who was an eminent researcher in the field of positive psychology. It is characterised by being so deeply immersed and focused on a chosen activity, that one loses the sense of time, space, and self, and comes out feeling deeply content. It’s important for children to enjoy their own company when social connections are not possible, especially with how the world has changed post the pandemic.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment, to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances”. According to flow research, the brain is producing five very important performance-enhancing neurochemicals during the state of flow. So at the end of the activity, we feel deeply content for having completed a challenge, or goal, and may not be looking for an external prize or award for it. Children can find flow in a range of activities where their skill matches the challenge, even those that may not fall into the conventional category of ‘productive activities’ - reading, writing, gardening, playing an instrument, singing, dancing, speaking, playing a sport, painting, building a project, creating or conceptualising something, or exploring an idea in their head - all of these could induce flow. Parents can encourage children to read more about the concept of flow and help them reduce distractions to reach optimal flow states that are intrinsically rewarding.

Help Them Find Comfort In Solitude

Loneliness has become a global pandemic, with children and teenagers struggling to make sense of it, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. Many factors can contribute to this feeling - a sense of loss of something important, feeling excluded and alienated in school or with peers, or generally feeling alone even when people are around. Emotional isolation can be very subjective, and it often begets more loneliness because the person loses the ability to connect with others, even when they might be feeling the need. In this sense, loneliness can lead to a paradox, and parents need to identify when children start falling into this dangerous spiral. It’s important to help children understand the difference between pleasant solitude (which should be encouraged) and saddening loneliness, and develop the skills to ask for help when they are lonely. The concept of flow mentioned above can help greatly in this and help you understand how to support your child’s mental health during Covid.

Help Them Develop A Strong Identity

How to nurture good mental health in children, How to support your child's mental health during COVID, Children's mental health during COVIDHelping Children Develop A Strong Identity

According to the famous developmental psychologist and researcher Eric Erikson, teenage is the phase when children are exploring their personal identity, which is based on the encouragement and reinforcement they receive from their environment. How parents, peers, and teachers respond to the child’s creative expressions and endeavours plays a huge role in the development of a strong sense of self and personal identity, shaping the child’s actions, beliefs, and behaviours. Children like to experiment and explore activities that their parents may never have done themselves, making them hesitant at first. It’s important to provide children with the right opportunities and allow for free creative expression to give a fair chance to their identity development. Failure to develop this sense of self can lead to identity confusion, which can give rise to a range of mental health concerns. Parents have to learn, then, how to help their children find an anchor for their identities in creative expressions and endeavours.

Encourage Them To Start Journaling

Research suggests that writing can be greatly beneficial to adolescents in feeling calmer, managing their anxiety, and finding a healthy outlet for their emotions. It not only helps to release the relentless chatter in our mind, but it also, in a strange way, helps in thinking clearly - as the famous playwright Edward Albee understood about himself, “I write to find out what I’m thinking”. Articulating their thoughts and feelings in a personal diary could take various forms, like a morning mood-check, a gratitude list, plans for the week, writing about fears, or even doodling. A range of creative journals are now available in the market, and they can make for a great gift for the child. In this endeavour, parents must also be mindful about allowing their child privacy, and not demanding to read their personal journal.

Encourage Physical Activity

As children enter high school, the academic rigour and pressures of scoring well inevitably drowns them in books and work. This is when they get less time for outdoor activities - a brilliant outlet to release all the extra energy that overwhelms the body due to stress. Even on busy days, when children might not have enough time for sports or physical activities, it’s important to encourage body movement in some form, even if it means doing some quick jumping jacks, or a few rounds of taking a flight of stairs. Consistent body movement and activity prevents chronic stress from converting into body aches and pains, which many adolescents complain about.

Encourage Them To Eat And Sleep Well

Parents have a tough time negotiating healthy meals, meal time, and sleep time with adolescents, because of the relentlessly busy school and study routines. It can quickly start feeling like a tug of war, with no resolution. Adolescents like it when they are treated as mature people who can take care of themselves, without being berated with advice or solutions every day. Help them understand the importance of healthy meals and sleep through neuroscience journals or podcasts, something that would be hard to ignore. Help them learn how to make a quick healthy and tasty meal for themselves, and congratulate them for taking care of themselves as a grown-up. Modelling the right actions plays a huge role in this process.

Allow Space For Sensitive Conversations

Adolescents are part of this ‘information age’, wherein they’re forced to make social comparisons. This unhealthy system may lead to many concerns like body image issues, eating disorders, anxiety linked to likes and followers on social media, problems with one’s identity, cyber-bullying and abuse, sexual risks, and even suicidal ideation. Parents need to be more sensitive than ever in dealing with adolescent problems because of the nature of their exposure.

It’s not easy being born in a generation that’s heavily dependent on external rewards and validation, and adults have an important role in helping them navigate through this uncertain and dangerous world. Creating an open and safe space to discuss conventionally ‘taboo topics’ has become increasingly important in families. Parents need to be empathetic and non-judgemental listeners in order to give children the assurance that they can discuss anything under the sun. In this attempt, parents should also try and read more to increase their awareness about topics that might be important to their children and facilitate a healthier and more supportive conversation.

Let Them Express Their Emotions

It is a common notion that as children grow old, they need their parents less to comfort them, console them, or simply hold them in a hug when they are distressed. But that’s far from the truth. There is relentless pressure on our children in the modern world, and sometimes, they do reach a breaking point. They may feel exhausted, tired, sad, hopeless, confused, and may not need any advice, suggestions, or solutions from their parents. All they might need in those moments, is a calm sounding board, along with warm, loving arms to hold them, as they have a good cry. In moments like these, “You are so grown up now, stop crying!”, doesn’t really help. We might do more damage when we fail to acknowledge that vulnerability and the need to be comforted exists even when children become teens and young adults.

Help Them Develop Their ‘Healthy-Coping Kit’

Emotional self-regulation is an important skill, which helps children respond to environmental challenges in a healthy manner, and an inability to self regulate can lead to a range of dysfunctional behaviours including - an unhealthy dependence on junk food to feel better, sleeping too much or too less, use of substances, gaming for too long or too much screen time, etc. These may serve as a temporary means to self-soothe in times of distress, and can quickly become their go-to coping mechanism. It is important to identify these behaviours early on, and help the child develop their ‘healthy-coping kit’. This would mean helping the child identify healthy ways of self-regulating their emotions, and feeling better during a tough time, which could be a combination of the ideas mentioned above and something that has helped them relax in the past.

Help Them Consult A Mental Health Professional

Adolescence is a tumultuous phase, and children sometimes need an absolutely unconditional, non-judgemental, and open space to express the complex emotions they are really going through, which at times, can become difficult for parents to understand. Further, as a parent, our immediate response is likely to provide any solution that we feel would help our child feel better, and often, this is not the need of the hour for the child. A professional can bring in an unbiased perspective, helping both the child and the parents to manage concerns in a more holistic manner. Even parents can consult mental health professionals for advice if they are struggling themselves to understand how to help their child better. We as a society are gradually embracing the idea of seeking help for our emotional and psychological concerns, and that help needs to be extended to our children too.

Helping your child nurture their mental health begins at home, and it is important that you as a parent know how to go about this. We hope you have a better understanding of how to nurture good mental health in children as they learn to navigate through the tumultuous phase of adolescence.

Saloni Chaudhary is a counselling psychologist and mental health educator. She works with Reboot Wellness, Gurugram.

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