Katharine Hill suggests some key things you can do now that will help your child’s mental health
Perhaps unsurprisingly the state of our children’s mental wellbeing is one of the main issues keeping parents up at night. It seems that hardly a week goes by without headlines reporting increasing levels of anxiety among young people. Recent research found that one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a mental health disorder, - that’s at least five children in a class of 30 students. (For more on mental health issues, go here)
Our young people are growing up in a fast-changing world of pressure and challenge, but also a world of opportunity and potential. The difficult task facing our children is how to navigate this complex world, and we can take heart from the fact that the people most able to help them are us, their parents. But if we are to do this, it’s not enough for us to be aware of the potential issues and their impact on mental health. We also need to know what action we can take to help our children grow into confident, resilient and emotionally healthy adults.
When our children are little, we encourage their physical growth and take precautions to keep them safe. We limit sugar and encourage healthy eating, establish appropriate bedtimes, regulate screen time, teach them to swim and cross the road safely. In the same way, there are things we can do in the everyday ups and downs of family life to help them grow emotionally healthy and strong.
One of the most important qualities that will help our children navigate the challenges of life is resilience. Resilient children tend to be more optimistic and motivated, think more creatively, develop strategies for problem-solving, enjoy good friendships, communicate well and have higher self-esteem. While resilience used to be thought of as a characteristic that some people were born with or not, it is now viewed as a skill that can be learnt.
Psychologists used to define emotional resilience as the ability to ‘bounce back’ and recover from a setback in life, but today, rather than just ‘bouncing back’, it’s also about ‘bouncing forward’. In other words, it’s about not only getting back to normal after facing difficulty, but learning from the process in order to deal with the next challenge that comes along.
While many schools do a great job of teaching about resilience in the classroom, lessons will only ever convey the theory. The truth is that resilience can only really be learnt in the hard knocks of life.
So how do we encourage this important quality in our children? Here are some of my top practical tips:
- Don’t try to fix everything. Give children a chance to find their own solutions to minor problems and frustrations without immediately rushing in to rescue them. As long as it’s safe, let your child experience the outcome of an action or behaviour. If they forget their sports kit, missing the match will usually teach them more than you frantically driving to school with it.
- Talk to your children about your own failures. When we are open about our failures, they learn that failure isn’t the end of the world, and that being an adult doesn’t mean you always get everything right.
- Help your child to take responsibility for a setback. When something doesn’t work out for them, draw up a pie chart with them and ask them to decide: How much was due to me? How much was due to someone else? How much was simply due to circumstances – for example, not having an essential piece of equipment or being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
- Remember that important word ‘yet’. Reassure your child that not being able to do something right now doesn’t mean they’ll never be able to do it or that they’re a failure. Saying ‘You don’t know how to do it … yet’ communicates possibility and the sense that the only thing standing between them and what they want to do is time and practice.
- Remind them of past successes. Children can become discouraged about their ability to do new things, so take time to give them clear examples of where their hard work and patience led to success.
- Affirm your child’s efforts and good qualities. Don’t limit praise to successes or achievements; recognise their other attributes. For example, ”You were so kind to that new boy in school. I was proud of you.” Affirmations that don’t depend on any kind of achievement and reflect character and effort are important for building their wellbeing and self-esteem.
Of course, as parents we want to protect our children and would love their lives to be as stress-free as possible, but the reality is that they’ll experience knocks and setbacks every day. Just as they get a few bumps and bruises on the outside, they will inevitably get a few knocks on the inside as well. They are unlikely to pass every test, win every match, or succeed in every job interview, and the course of true love never did run smooth. We can’t and shouldn’t remove all the difficulties, but we can help them see challenge and disappointment as part of everyday life, and pass on skills to help them cope with stress and adversity.
Whether it’s a five-year-old whose much-loved guinea pig has died, a seven-year-old dealing with the frustration of a difficult LEGO® brick project, or a ten-year-old who has just missed out on the lead part in the school play, emotional resilience is key. It’s the lessons our children learn through struggle and disappointment that will be the seedbed for growing that important quality in their lives, and which will set them up for a lifetime of dealing well with whatever challenges are thrown their way.
 Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020, NHS Digital, October 2020, digital.nhs.co.uk