Your child’s mental health

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FOLLOWING last week’s article, I hope that all parents now consider their own mental health a first priority. Now that you’ve done this, I’m going to advise on how you can support the mental health of your children.

Firstly you have not failed in your parental responsibility if your child is diagnosed with a mental illness. According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 10 children are diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

For so many reasons, parents shutter at just the thought that their children may be vulnerable to mental illness. The feeling of helplessness and the stigma attached are just a few. But not to worry, there are things that can be done to prevent or minimise the progression of ill mental health or a disorder.

One of the most important is to talk openly about mental health. This allows you both to acknowledge the commonality and provides a platform for comfortable and safe sharing of thoughts, emotions or difficult situations.

You may not understand or even agree with what they have to say but you listen and empathise anyway. Let them do most of the talking in the beginning because if you voice too many opinions from the get-go, they tend to only tell you what they think you want to hear. When faced with difficult or uncomfortable information, do your best not to judge or become angry. Receiving honesty is a privilege, not a right and if you handle the newfound knowledge badly, that privilege will be taken from you.

Try asking questions such as “were you happy with the decision you made? How would you deal with it differently? Give them a chance to recognise, acknowledge and come up with their own solutions to their problems. Of course in certain situations, punishments may be required but try and ensure that your reaction is appropriate for the situation. If you’re nervous about starting the conversation, find an activity that you already enjoy doing together and casually bring up the topic then. Whether it’s artwork or cooking, it’s an easier platform to begin any conversation in a more comfortable and less seemingly intrusive way.

Model good behaviour. One of the most efficient ways of learning is through observation. That popular phrase “do as I say and not as I do” is just noise.

Show your children what healthy habits and coping skills look like. If you’re having a bad day and reach for cigarettes or alcohol, do you really think it’s fair or realistic to expect something else from the person you are moulding? You are their guide on how to deal with future situations.

Good mental health also requires a good environment which is free of any abuse and supportive of any situation.

Monitor unhealthy behaviours that have seem to become normalised. Try not to encourage too many indoor activities such as social media and video games. I’m not saying to take them away altogether but make sure it’s balanced with physical activities.
Create and keep routines which are good predictors of mental health. Whether it’s bedtime, wake up time, days for certain activities or chores, it helps to keep a positive balance in the child’s (as well as your) life. Incorporate social interaction with healthy friends and family members as routine.

It is important to keep in mind that children and adolescents, like any adults, will have good and bad days with the occasional unusual behaviour. This should not rush in judgement of poor mental health just yet. Are they just over stressed or over stimulated?
I can’t say this enough, timing is everything so in stressful situations, you should allow your child some space to calm down and gather themselves. Imagine that you’re in an overwhelming situation, needing space to calm down but is instead greeted with an intrusion of personal space and more distress coming from someone else. Parents often forget that children are people too and reserve the right to space.

Watch your words as these can have a profound effect on your child’s mental health. Your words help increase their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love. I read a study the other day that claimed children around the age of 13 were five times less likely to have suicidal thoughts and seven times less likely to attempt suicide if their parents simply told them they were proud of them. Five little words made that much of a difference.

A time for intervention would be if you notice any long term changes in your child’s thoughts, feelings or behaviours. These include voiced frequent negative thoughts, persistent irritable, angry or sad moods or isolation with changes in eating or sleeping patterns. If your child is displaying these symptoms for a period of a month or longer, professional intervention is advised. However, if any thoughts of self- harm or suicide are mentioned, intervene immediately.

If you feel as though you’re not equipped to handle the situation presented, do some research on what professional mental health resources are available within your community or online. It’s much better to have a list of options prepared and given to the child so they feel they have some control in their own recovery. If they are too young for this, I’m sure you’ll make the most appropriate decision.

If there is a diagnosis, research the condition so both you and the child can better understand what is happening or what may happen.

Finally, understand that improvement or recovery does not happen overnight. There may be lots of trial and error before you figure out what’s right.

I know you may feel overwhelmed or even helpless but trust me, a loving, supportive and stable environment can go a long way when it comes to supporting your child’s wellbeing.

Thanking you for reading. Please keep sending any topics you’d like to talk about to caitlinvieira@gmail.com

Suicide Prevention Helpline numbers: 223-0001, 223-0009, 623-4444, 600-7896
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