You might think of childhood as a carefree time. What worries could a 3-year-old have that may impact their mental health?
Quite a few, unfortunately. Children are not immune from psychological woes. If anything, they are more vulnerable because they lack adult insight and impulse control, and the trauma they experience from external events or poor decision-making leaves lasting scars. Here are five things we can do to support our children’s mental health.
1. Provide Unstructured Play
According to psychologist Jean Piaget, play is the business of childhood — and it is vital to mental health. Your children learn how to exist in the world through experimentation, and unstructured playtime allows them to explore their limits and discover how to interact with others.
Unstructured play also teaches children how to resolve conflicts in creative ways. For example, they might act out a challenging situation, like dealing with a bullying classmate, using dolls. Through this process, they learn how to reach solutions that make them feel happy and empowered, translating into real-life courage.
Finally, unstructured playtime helps your children develop a sense of agency. Depression often develops when your little one feels like they can’t control their destiny or influence external circumstances. Every time your little one overcomes fear by climbing up the sliding board ladder, they reinforce their belief that they can do it.
2. Teach About Emotions
In the book “Emotional Intelligence,” psychologist Daniel Goleman asserts that this trait matters more to overall life success than IQ. Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s ability to perceive, control, evaluate and express feelings appropriately.
It all starts with your child recognizing their emotions for what they are, and for that, they need a sympathetic parent from an early age. When your child begins to tantrum, ask them questions like, “are you hungry or tired? Or are you frustrated?”
Print out a chart of emotions and play games with your little one, acting out how they might translate into different behaviors. This exercise helps them to put a label on the tsunami of feelings they sometimes experience.
Once your children have the vocabulary, you can then proceed to teach them positive coping mechanisms. One of these is mindfulness.
3. Introduce Mindfulness
Children can meditate. Some schools that have introduced the technique report fewer behavioral problems. A 2018 study by Kansas State University indicated that children who completed guided meditations for two semesters had fewer discipline referrals than the control group.
You can teach mindfulness and yoga in age-appropriate ways. One way to do so is to have your child meditate one minute for each year of their age. Explain that this isn’t a “time-out” style punishment but rather a way to clear their mind. You can illustrate this principle by shaking a snow globe — explain that the practice is like letting the flakes settle so that they can think clearly.
Movement lowers stress hormone levels and helps your child’s body to produce endorphins, feel-good chemicals that improve mood. Make yoga accessible to your little ones by having them breathe like Darth Vader while rounding their spines like scared Halloween kitties.
4. Cultivate Positive Coping Strategies
Exercise is only one example of a positive coping strategy you can teach your child. These activities help with emotional regulation — letting your little ones control their feelings instead of blindly reacting. When your child starts to tantrum, provide a safe space to blow off steam, perhaps running around the yard or pounding a pillow against the bed.
Self-soothing is a skill that will help your child later in life. Start encouraging it early by implementing regular quiet times where your little one can read, color, or do another activity intended to relax them. Since your children imitate what you do more than they listen to what you say, let them see you reach for the coloring book after a stressful day.
Getting outside likewise helps to improve mood. Please take your child to the park or a nearby nature preserve as often as possible. If you can’t wait to get away after over a year of restrictions, why not consider a family camping trip this summer?
5. Seek Professional Help
Sometimes, you may need to seek professional help to support your child’s mental health. Please remember there is no more shame in seeking therapy than in getting a cast put on a broken leg. Your child’s issues may not reflect on your practices — please don’t feel guilty.
Your child’s therapist can help support their mental health while answering your questions about what you can do at home. They may recommend changes to your parenting style based upon your little one’s unique needs. Their psychiatrist may prescribe medications that correct underlying imbalances that impact your child’s mood and behavior.
Please don’t delay seeking care if you sense your child might harm themselves or others. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 through 24 — pay attention to signs of trouble in your teen.
We Can Support Our Children’s Mental Health These 5 Ways
Psychological disorders know no age boundaries, and kids aren’t immune. Support your child’s mental health in the five above ways.