How to Improve Your Child's Mental Health

Young Latin American brother and sister relaxing outdoors in a backyard hammock and using a digital tablet.

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If you're like most parents, you're probably very diligent about taking your kids to their well-visits, getting immunizations, offering nutritious food, and helping with their schoolwork. How often, though, do you think about how to take care of your child’s mental health?

A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health, particularly when it comes to dealing with stress, behavior, and academics.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 5 children experience a mental disorder in any given year. And while not all mental health issues can be prevented, you can take steps to help keep your child as mentally healthy as possible.

Take Care of Your Mental Health

One of the best things you can do to keep your child mentally healthy is to take care of your own mental health. Not only will you be modeling the habits that improve mental health, but you'll also be creating a healthier environment for your child.

Taking care of your own mental health is especially important now given all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Remember, kids look to parents to know how to deal with stressful and anxiety-provoking situations. Make sure you not only address any mental health issues but you also take time to relax and de-stress.

Remember, your kids learn by watching you. So make sure you set a positive example on how to deal with stressful situations and maintain good mental health.

When parents have untreated mental health issues, children are more likely to develop mental health problems of their own. This means that if you are feeling down, have lost energy, or notice changes in your eating or sleeping habits, you should talk with your doctor. These symptoms could mean that you're struggling with depression or anxiety.

Keep in mind that untreated mental illness may make family life inconsistent or unpredictable. It also can affect your ability to discipline your kids and may strain your relationship with your partner or other family members. When that happens, it can take a toll on your child's psychological well-being.

What's more, children are at an even greater risk of developing mental illness when both parents have mental health problems. So, if you or your partner have a mental health problem, get treatment. Research shows when a parent receives therapy or medication to address mental illness, children’s mental health symptoms improve as well.

Build Trust

Your relationship with your kids plays a major role in their mental health; and a solid relationship begins with building trust. One way to establish trust is by creating a sense of safety and security.

This means meeting your child's physical and emotional needs by taking care of them when they're hungry, thirsty, hot, or cold as well as when they're scared, anxious, or sad.

As your kids navigate this pandemic and the uncertainties surrounding the 2020–2021 school year, they need you to be there for them now more than ever. Commit to strengthening your family bonds and being trustworthy.

And by all means, do what you say and say what you mean. Your kids need you to be consistent, honest, and caring. Find ways to demonstrate that you love them and that they can trust you to keep them safe and healthy.

Foster Healthy Relationships

The relationship kids have with their parents is vital, but it’s not the only relationship that matters. A mentally healthy child will have a number of relationships with other family members, such as grandparents and cousins, as well as friends and neighbors.

Even if you’re the type of parent who loves to spend alone time with your little ones, give them the opportunity to connect with other people too—especially their best friends. Maintaining these relationships can make all the difference in the world to your child’s mental health.

Obviously, accomplishing this task is not easy during a pandemic. So get creative and do what you can to encourage your kids to connect with others. Arrange a socially-distanced visit with the grandparents or encourage kids to use Skype or FaceTime to connect with friends. Although virtual interactions are less than ideal, they still help kids maintain their relationships with others.

Be Consistent

The importance of being consistent can’t be overstated. Children crave predictability and structure. They want to know what activity they're going to do next, what consequences they will experience if they break rules, and what privileges they will receive for good behavior.

Even things like moving to a new city, or going through a divorce, can create chaos and big changes that are hard on kids. It's common for them to withdraw, grow anxious, or begin acting out when they're struggling to deal with their feelings. Maintaining consistent discipline and ensuring your kids know what to expect day to day will help them manage their feelings.

Likewise, help them cope with the uncertainty of the upcoming school year by providing some structure to their everyday lives. Establish a daily routine, keep a calendar, and plan a fun day for the family each week.

Teach Stress Management

While it’s important to protect your child from trauma like abuse and bullying, you can’t prevent your child from experiencing stress. Stress is a normal part of life and learning to deal with it in a healthy way now will set your child up for success in the future.

For instance, they are bound to have disagreements with friends and failed homework assignments at one time or another. Give your kids the skills they need to deal with those circumstances now in order to build their mental strength.

You also should look for healthy ways to cope with the stresses that COVID-19 brings. This might mean spending more time together and talking about what's troubling them. Follow your child's lead on how much talking they want to do though. Sometimes too much talking can increase stress and anxiety.

Also help your child personalize their stress-relief activities. While one child may get stress relief from writing in a journal, another one may want to call a friend when they're feeling upset. So, proactively identify specific things your child can do to keep their stress levels in check when they're dealing with tough times.

Establish Healthy Habits

A healthy diet, a good night’s sleep, and plenty of exercises aren’t just good for your child’s physical health—they're essential to your child's mental health too. Teach your kids to develop healthy habits that will keep their bodies and their minds in good shape.

Research shows mindfulness and gratitude can also have a big impact on mental health. So incorporate mindfulness activities into your daily lives and in the process, you may improve the whole family’s mental health.

Develop Self-Esteem

Helping children develop their self-esteem, which can give a significant boost to their mental health, is two-fold for a parent. First, you want to do your part in boosting your child’s self-esteem. Second, you should teach your children how to develop their own self-esteem.

Here are some ways to help your kids develop healthy self-esteem.

  • Provide genuine, realistic praise. Saying things like, “You’re the smartest kid in the whole school,” won’t help your child develop healthy self-esteem. Avoid praising things they can’t control, like how they look or how smart they are. Instead, praise their effort and steer clear of exaggerated compliments.
  • Give opportunities for independence. Kids feel better about themselves when they’re able to do things on their own. So whether you’re teaching your children how to attend an online class or you’re showing them that you trust them to make their own grilled cheese sandwich, kids feel good about themselves when they’re able to demonstrate competence.
  • Help your child develop healthy self-talk. When your child says something like, “I’ll never be good at math,” it may be tempting to say, “Of course you will.” But that won’t help them develop a healthier inner dialogue. When your child says negative things, ask questions like, “What could you do to get better?” or “What’s the evidence that’s not true?” Help your child draw healthier conclusions.

Play Together

A child who is healthy—both physically and mentally—needs to play. Truthfully, adults need play, too! Take time to put aside work, chores, and other obligations and focus solely on your child. Doing so, shows your child that they are worth your precious minutes.

Studies also have shown that engaging in healthy play can benefit kids in a number of ways. For instance, one study found that a child's odds of being happy increases and their risk of depression and anxiety decreases when they play.

Plus, laughing and playing together are great stress relievers for you and your child. It's also a great way to forget about the pandemic for awhile and just enjoy one another.

While playing with your child, you’ll not only strengthen your relationship and bond, but you’ll probably find yourself having fun too. Seeing a parent let go of worries can assure kids that they can do that as well.

Watch for Red Flags

Some children are naturally a little self-conscious or a little more pessimistic than others. That’s not necessarily a problem. However, there’s a line where normal struggles turn into a reason for concern.

If you notice that your child feels sad or overly anxious about normal situations, like meeting new people, there might be a problem. Likewise, a change in mood or behavior that lasts more than two weeks could be a sign of a problem as well. 

With all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and what it means for the 2020–2021 school year, don't be surprised if you notice some changes in your child's mental health. Be extra vigilant if you notice they are having difficulty sleeping, showing changes in eating habits, crying more than normal, and being more irritable.

Also, be on the lookout for issues concentrating, an inability to sit still, and struggles with focusing on the task at hand. Difficulty functioning in those areas are red flags and should warrant a call to your child's doctor.

Before you get too worried, though, remember that the problem might not be too serious or long-lasting. Sometimes a little bit of stress can cause a child to display a few concerning signs, but it usually subsides.

Seek Professional Help

It's estimated that only 21% of children with a mental health issue actually get treatment. That means the vast majority of children with mental health problems aren't getting the help they need.

It might seem like a drastic decision, but it's never too early for a child to see a mental health provider. In fact, it might even behoove the whole family to attend family counseling even if just one child is displaying some symptoms of poor mental health. Not only can counseling help improve your child's mental health, but it can also provide resources and support to the parent who may be struggling, too.

A Word From Verywell

Be proactive about keeping your child as mentally healthy as possible. But if you see signs of a problem, talk to your child's physician about your concerns. Early intervention can be key to treating problems as effectively as possible. 

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