For Children’s Mental Health Week we spoke to CalmFamily Consultant and Clinical Psychologist Dr Hannah Guzinska about ways parents can support their children’s mental health.
Hannah works mainly with families with very young children but all of these apply to children of all ages, though the specifics change as they develop. Here are 6 tips we discussed:
1. Reciprocity builds children’s mental health
Be responsive with your child and treat them as a conversation partner, right from the start. Respond to them with facial expressions and conversation and get to know their cues and what they mean. Evidence suggests that the “serve and return” of interaction builds healthy and resilient brains. This promotes positive mental health in children and adults. There are some ideas about activities to build connection in Hannah’s free download on her website (https://dr-hannah-guzinska.mailerpage.com ).
Be curious with your little one, wonder about what might be going on inside for them. You can start sentences with “I wonder if you might be feeling….” or “sometimes I feel… “. Giving them a vocabulary for their feelings is really helpful for their emotional literacy. By using curiosity and tentative language you also give them the chance to correct you if you get it wrong, and to be curious themselves about their own and others’ experiences. Emotional literacy supports emotional wellbeing and is linked to positive mental health in children and the adults they grow to become.
3. Understand yourself and your child
Try to learn enough about child development to understand what might be going on beneath the surface of behaviour. Try to understand yourself and your triggers too, so you are more aware of what is driving your responses. Some things that are a normal part of development, for example, meltdowns, are also likely to be quite triggering. This is especially true when we parents lay our own unhelpful assumptions over the top; “I’m a bad parent”, “My child is doing it for the attention”.
Understanding where these assumptions come from, as well as what is going on for your child developmentally, can help take some of the heat our of already stressful situations.
4. Don’t be afraid of letting children experience difficult feelings
It can be easy to try and protect them from so called ‘negative’ emotions but emotional resilience comes from being able to allow all feelings to come and go. When they are feeling sad, angry, disappointed or upset, try to “contain” and accept the feeling (even if you don’t like the behaviour that goes with it); validating their emotional experience will go a long way to helping them feel calmer and more connected to you.
It’s also ok for them to have negative feelings about you sometimes! They might not like a boundary, for example and be angry with you because you’ve said no to something. You can hear and empathise with the feeling they have without changing the boundary. “Wow, I think you feel really cross about me not getting you that chocolate bar; I feel cross too when I can’t have what I want”. When they are young they really need you help to manage big feelings, and staying with them and allowing them to go through the feelings with your support helps them to realise that emotions don’t have to be avoided or run away from. This supports children to develop positive long-term ways to manage their emotions, which is important for their mental health.
5. Regulate yourself first
It’s so hard to help your child with their feelings when you are in a state of overwhelm yourself. Try to include self care (including thoughtful boundaries) in your daily repertoire. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, even a few minutes grounding yourself while the kettle boils can be enough to move you further inside your window of tolerance.
Read more: Self-care is an essential way to meet our needs as parents, not all indulgence and bubble baths!
You can read more about self-care and more on Hannah’s blog.
6. Easier said than done
Finally, all of this is easier said than done! Hannah and I talked about how even as a psychologist and parenting consultant she frequently (daily!) messes up and says and does things that aren’t in line with her parenting values. Be kind to yourself when you make a mistake or aren’t your best parenting self. It’s ok to apologise, change your mind, or come back to a conversation when you are feeling calmer. In fact repair is a crucial part of relationships. And your kids will learn so much from your own compassion to yourself.