Why should parents take care of children’s mental health from an early age?
Good mental health is a very important factor to help children develop holistically, as well as a fundamental foundation for happiness in life later on. According to studies, the root cause of many mental health problems diagnosed in adults is the accumulation of mental health problems from an early age
Scientific research on “Early Childhood Mental Health” by the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, has shown that a person’s mental health is built from the earliest years of life, and childhood trauma and events have a lot of impact on an individual’s ability to learn, to work, and to form close relationships and social connections throughout his/her life.
1. Understanding mental health in children
For children, mental health is how they think and feel about themselves and the world around them. Good mental health will help children build social-emotional skills that affect how they think, communicate, and behave positively. In addition, children who calmly take up a challenge and manage emotions in a balanced way, have the ability to recover from traumatic events and know how to love themselves during periods of unrest, as well as when things are not going as expected.
When mental health lacks care, whether in adults or young children, there are consequences on many levels. Three of the most “costly” chronic diseases in today’s society are cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. Science has proven that these diseases share deep roots in memories, events, and trauma from childhood. Therefore, caring for children’s mental health from an early age is extremely important for the well-being of children themselves and society as a whole.
2. Common Mental Health Problems in Children
Preschoolers respond and process emotional experiences and hurt in very different ways compared to teenagers and adults, so problems can be much more difficult to diagnose in young children.
Mental health problems in children are usually divided into two main groups:
- Conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorder
- Conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder
The main reasons for the child’s mental health problems include:
- Family situation and living environment (poverty, epidemics, adults’ drug abuse, etc.)
- How children are treated by parents and caregivers (feeling abandoned, scolded, being beaten, abused, etc.)
- How the child is treated by other close connections (discriminated against by friends, being ostracized, etc.)
Early signs of mental health in children:
- Frequent and repetitive tantrums, challenges, and aggressions
- Being upset or crying a lot or often being in a foul mood
- Frequent fear or anxiety, very afraid to leave parents
- Staying away from social events like birthday parties
- Retaining behaviours such as thumb sucking or bedwetting while growing up
- Having difficulties concentrating, not being able to sit still or always being restless.
- Problems in daily activities such as eating erratically, sleeping difficulties, nightmares
- Abnormal sickness without obvious cause, such as headaches, stomach pain, nausea, etc.
- Problems studying at the school, difficulties integrating with others, etc.
It is important to note that in Early Childhood, toxic stressful situations from the environment can damage brain structure and increase the likelihood of prolonged mental health problems. So signs of mental health problems can manifest as early as a child, or years later, as a result of a gradual buildup of psychological problems.
3. Three “golden principles” to develop and improve mental health for children
The Center on the Developing Child, Havard University, has laid out the following three basic principles that play a prerequisite role in developing holistic mental health for children:
(1) Building positive relationships around the child
- The loving and positive relationship of parents and caregivers with the child is key as they directly affect the child’s mental health:
- Show love to children often so that they feel safe and know they are cared for (show through words, eyes, gestures, smiles, singing a lullaby, hugging, etc.)
- Always use a positive and constructive approach when educating children (be positive, use praise, have a balance between love and discipline, etc.)
- Quality time is always more important than quantity:
- Take time each day to talk and listen to the children (when they want to talk, parents should pause what they are doing and devote all attention to the children)
- Spend time with the children doing activities that they like (soccer, drawing, playing games, reading books, etc.)
- Parents need to know how to resolve intra-family conflicts in a positive, constructive way.
- Encourage your child to connect with others around him/her (waving, talking to neighbours, participating in community festivals, etc.)
(2) Educate children on core life skills
Core life skills such as emotional and behavioural management skills provide long-term benefits, even when the children have grown up, helping them to calmly face the stresses of life. While experiencing all levels of emotions (fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, joy, etc.) if children can still remain calm,, they will feel more satisfied with themselves and confident to continue on their life journey.
Emotional Management Skills Training – developing Emotional Intelligence:
- Encourage children to recognize and name their feelings. Teach children to understand that people have all kinds of emotions and that it is natural and normal.
Example: “Did you feel frustrated by the broken toy? I can understand that feeling.”
“You can take a deep breath and count from 1 to 5 whenever you feel negative emotions.”
- Be a positive role model for your children by managing your emotions.
For example, “Running around the lake may seem difficult, but I think I’ll be able to do it slowly!”
“I’m a little sad that today’s dish hasn’t been successful, but it’s okay, I’ll try again next time!”
- Always support the children when they feel unsettled so that they feel safe.
For example, when children have trouble with their friends at school, they can be reassured that their parents are always there for them, and that the teacher has a plan on how to handle the situation delicately.
- Help the children learn how to manage small worries so they don’t become big problems, by gently encouraging them to step outside their comfort zone.
For example, “Have you considered joining this year’s school singing group? You love to sing!”
Behavioural Management Skills Training:
Behavioural management skills are extremely important in balancing children’s mental health, especially for children who tend to be hyperactive or have difficulty controlling anger and stubborn behaviour.
- Positive Discipline Methods: Parents can work with their children to develop “behavioural rules” in the family (positive discipline – not punishment).
For example, when they throw their toy, instead of punishing or scolding the children (short-term effects only), parents may store the toy for one day to teach their children that wrong behaviours in life result in consequences.
- Set goals appropriate to the children’s age and abilities (such as self-service skills and housework appropriate for preschoolers). Praise the children’s efforts to be more confident in themself.
- As the children grow older, encourage them to ask questions and advocate for thinking on their own in challenging times and difficult situations before parents intervene and provide advice or answers.
- Encourage children to take risks, fail and recognize the lesson. Teach the children to understand that it is normal to make mistakes and that in reality, all human beings are imperfect. It is important that they see failures as opportunities for improvement and development because in all mistakes there will always be lessons.
(3) Minimize the sources of stress
As mentioned, children’s mental health issues largely come from their surroundings and how they are treated by their families and close relationships (deprivation, abuse, violence, etc.). So the well-being of the child is directly linked to the well-being of the caregivers. We need to understand that the mental health of a child’s parent/caregiver should also be given the highest priority to be able to provide the child with the healthiest emotional and psychological nurturing.
Sources: Early Childhood Mental Health (Center on the Developing Child) & Raising Children Network (Australia).