Many parents understand the importance of healthy eating habits and staying active for their child's physical health. Now, with rates of mental health issues in children on the rise, more and more parents are realizing the value of supporting and nurturing their child's mental health as part of their overall health and wellness.
And while kids' mental health may be misunderstood as only a concern for children diagnosed with or seemingly at risk for a mental health disorder, one psychologist at Children's Health℠ encourages a different perspective.
Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a Children's Health clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, explains, "Good mental health is really about creating, encouraging and using everyday healthy habits – like sharing and acknowledging feelings, correcting unhealthy and unhelpful thinking, showing empathy and building resiliency."
Dr. Westers shares his advice on how all parents can teach kids about mental health and support their children on a journey to better mental health.
What is mental health?
Mental health is our emotional, psychological and social well-being, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. Our mental health can affect how think, feel and behave and influence daily activities such as relationships, academic performance and physical health.
How many children have a mental health disorder?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 1 in 5 children in the U.S. experience a mental, behavioral or developmental health disorder. The most common disorders among children include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder
How can parents affect children's mental health?
Parents play an important part in supporting and encouraging a child's good mental health habits. Mental health disorders do run in families, so if you suffer from anxiety, your child may be more likely to have an anxiety disorder, too. However, that is not always the case because environment also matters.
"What's most important is good modeling and instilling healthy habits so kids can face adversity later in life," says Dr. Westers.
How can you improve children's mental health?
Parents can nurture a child's mental health by building a close relationship with them, providing structure and boundaries, fostering independence, encouraging social connections, teaching healthy habits and modeling positive behavior.
Dr. Westers breaks down eight ways to help improve children's mental health:
1. Be intentional and attuned
Parents can nurture their child's mental health by paying close attention to their child's verbal and nonverbal cues. This helps identify when your child needs support or when they need someone to talk with.
When parents are attuned to their child – meaning they are consciously aware of their child's nonverbal physical and emotional needs and respond empathically to meet those needs – children develop a secure foundation from which their mental health can flourish. Children can sense if their parents are interested in them and if their parents approve or disapprove of them. Provide a secure base in which your child can safely experience their feelings, even before they can identify and verbally articulate them. Children learn best when they feel safe, so teaching them how to identify their feelings will go further if they are safe to express those very feelings.
2. Balance closeness and compliance
A good relationship with parents is one of the strongest protective factors against mental health disorders. Look for everyday opportunities to lead with empathy and foster closeness. This can help create a healthy relationship – one that makes it easier for your child to come to you when they face a problem.
For example, when your child throws a fit in the middle of a restaurant, your first reaction might be to settle them quickly, so they start behaving. While it's important for children to learn how to be good citizens, it's also important to show empathy in the moment. Instead of telling your child to be quiet, consider if there is another factor at play. Is she hungry? Did he not take a nap today? Did they have a bad day at school?
This applies to older children and teenagers all the more. They are more likely to comply with parental requests when they feel loved by and close to their parents.
"Consider if you've deposited enough emotional closeness into your ‘relationship bank account' so that a request for compliance does not bankrupt your relationship," encourages Dr. Westers. "If your teen is about to move out, perhaps your long-term relationship with them is more important than getting them to rigidly obey certain arbitrary rules, such as those five extra minutes on their computer or video game."
3. Allow your child to experience distress and failure
Understandably, parents often want to swoop in and stop children from experiencing heartache or failure. However, those distressing experiences are key to building a child's mental health. "Failure builds resilience and encourages growth, understanding and even empathy," explains Dr. Westers.
As long as your child is safe, consider standing on the sidelines and being ready to support and encourage them when they need it most – instead of fixing a problem as soon as it happens.
4. Let children be bored
No playdates this week or next? No problem. Boredom, Dr. Westers says, is when creativity takes root. It's when children learn how to manage conflict with friends and siblings, how to problem solve, manage time, engage their imagination, develop self-control and be independent. These are all key traits in building resiliency and supporting your child's mental health. Keeping your child busy with scheduled activities may keep them from complaining of boredom, but it may also keep them from cultivating these skills. Don't feel pressured to fill every hour of your child's day with activity.
5. Provide structure
It's easier to deal with failures and struggles in life when we know that some boundaries and routines are in place. That includes boundaries at bedtime, limits on electronics, rules for playtime and expectations on how we treat others and ourselves. It is okay to allow for flexibility, but placing boundaries and structure communicates to your child that you love them and are invested in their well-being.
6. Encourage connections
Social health is a key part of our mental health. We are wired for connection. Building relationships allow us to learn how to be a better friend and learn critical social skills, such as reading and responding to nonverbal cues.
Dr. Westers suggests that for every hour of online connections, kids may need 30 minutes of face-to-face connections. That means balancing online video games with sending children outdoors to play with friends in the neighborhood.
7. Model good behavior
One of the most important ways parents can nurture their child's mental health is to model healthy behavior. That includes being open about your feelings – without oversharing details. It also means showing how you bounce back from a mistake.
"Parents mess up. Kids mess up. We hurt people we love," Dr. Westers says. "We have to recognize that and communicate our remorse. When our children see that it's okay to mess up, they learn not to dwell on past mistakes. They can become more resilient and move on to better and brighter memories."
8. Make healthy choices
Our physical health plays a critical role in our mental health. Our mind and body are intricately connected, and healthy eating, exercise and adequate sleep have all been shown to protect against mental health disorders and improve mood.
Parents should continue to encourage and model healthy choices that benefit physical, emotional and mental health, including:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Being physically active
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Teaching digital hygiene or responsible use of technology
Your child's mental health is a vital part of their overall wellness. Learn how you can help them build resilience and strong emotional habits.
Children's Health provides comprehensive services to support children's and teens' mental health. Learn more about our Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology Programs.
You can also access emotional care and support from the comfort of your home with Virtual Visit Behavioral Health. With a behavioral health care appointment, you can speak to a board-certified psychiatrist or licensed therapist using video technology. Learn more about Virtual Visit Behavioral Health.