Updated: Nov 16, 2021
When we talk about mental health, we often don’t think about how it’s applicable to young children. We get the impression that children have no problems or challenges, so how could they not be mentally healthy? Let’s break down what mental health consists of for a young child: resilience, relationship, and response.
Resilience: the ability to go through feelings of disappointment, sadness, upset, and emerge on the other side. When something does not go their way, a child’s ability to go through their feelings of upset, and then calm down afterward.
Relationship: ability to give and receive love and affection. A child surrounded by expressions of love and affection through words, calm tones, and physical expressions like hugs and kisses builds a positive environment.
Response: The ability to express themselves in words and appropriate action. A child that is listened to, spoken to at eye level, and responded to positively, will learn to respond and express their needs and feelings.
These are key emotional and mental skills taught to children primarily at home before they start relating and interacting with the world. Parents and caregivers play the paramount role of modeling these skills to their children in the way they live, behave and speak. The old saying that “Babies don’t come with an instruction book” also applies to the babies - they were so not given an instruction book. They are looking out for clues, listening for signs, and sensing feelings to put together their world and outlook - to build their mental health. Let’s try our hardest to give them a beautiful, peaceful, and positive starting point. I know we don’t feel beautiful, peaceful, and positive all the time but when we are in the presence of children we must try our hardest to emulate the kind of world we want to live in. Because if we don’t, who will do it for them? It is the greatest gift we can give them.
Sooooooo, how do we do that?
When something difficult is happening, model resilience.
“Oh I wish this truck would get out of my way but that’s ok, I’ll take some breaths and count 1 to 10 to practice patience.” I know sometimes that’s hard to practice so if you can’t model that resilient response, at the minimum does not say a lot of negative words or exhibit angry actions. So that night, when they’re upset at you because you’re getting them ready for bed you can use the same words. “I see that you’re upset. Why don’t you take deep breaths and count to 10 and practice patience to calm down and feel better.” They will remember that you practice that skill when you’re upset and so it’s not unreasonable to ask them to do this.
Relationship. When you and your partner are arguing over something, try not to raise your voice or stomp out of the room and be silent the rest of the day.
Either avoid arguing in front of your children or practice the skill of good conflict resolution.
Be mindful of taking turns speaking, staying calm.
Start with sentences like “I feel that you” Instead of saying “You do this all the time…” Say “I hear you” after your partner speaks.
And finally, if there is not a resolution, then end it with “Let’s agree to disagree.”
And then model the love and affection you have for each other - hug and kiss often, when you’re leaving for work or saying good night.
Response. Children want to be seen and heard. Don’t we know it? They want to know that you are watching them and that you care what they do. They strive to matter to you and want to please you. Sometimes they don’t know how to do that because they don’t have self-control yet and don’t know how they are “supposed” to behave. Little things you say to show them they are being acknowledged and that you are there for them. This contributes so much to their self-love and self-acceptance. If your communication with them is always centered on correction, punitive tones, or negative words, that will become their inner dialogue, and believe me, they will waste many years of their adult life trying to rewrite that internal narrative.
So what are some small phrases that do BIG things for children’s mental and emotional health?
“I see that you are playing by yourself quietly.”
“I see the red balloons on your shirt.” Instead of “I like your dress,” because then they think that they should dress to please you.
“Tell me about your drawing.” It starts a conversation. Again, instead of “I like the house that you drew", because actually, drawing and painting are expressions of their feelings and ideas.
“What should we do next?” after arriving from outside or when preparing dinner. This helps them engage with the process of living life instead of things just being done to them or words spoken at them. Invite them to participate in their own lives, and in the process, help them grow their mind and independence.
“I hear that you are asking for more food nicely. Good job for practicing your manners.”
“I see that you are waiting patiently as we get ready. I’m so proud of you.”