Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
North Wales Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service
Helping your child
Here are some ideas on how we as parents, grandparents and care givers, can help our children develop good mental health:
Know your child
What does your child like to do? When do they seem to be the happiest? Is it looking t a book? Climbing on the furniture? Colouring in pictures?
We may think we know our children and indeed we may, bit it’s not until we really spend time with them, allowing them to ‘lead’ the activities that we really get to know what turns them on, pushes their buttons. This is where we learn what our child’s strengths are, what they can do as well as what they find difficult.
Be a cheerleader
Is your child an optimist or a pessimist? Having a positive outlook on life is a great protective factor for our mental health.
We might argue that we are born blessed with a sunny disposition or cursed with a gloomy one. Be that as it may, it is always possible to turn negatives to positives by choosing to look at things in a different way. For example, the child who says ‘I can’t’ as a matter of course can be helped to recognise those words as an expression of an unhelpful thought that, with a little persuasion, can be changed to the more helpful ‘I can try’.
Creativity involves self-expression. It delights in challenging old ideas, taking risks and using the imagination to make new things.
The benefits to children of being allowed and encouraged to use their innate creative powers are many and include:
….. and many more, all of which contribute to developing and maintaining good mental health.
Part of our development into well rounded, mentally healthy adults comes from achievement and having our efforts recognised. Having jobs appropriate to our age to do in the house and being given small responsibilities lead to a sense of achievement and to the pleasure of having contributed.
Expectations that are too high however can lead to disappointment and failure. Failure, especially when it is repeated, leads to disengagement and disillusionment.
Break tasks down into small achievable steps. Reward each small success with praise and encouragement. This is how we help our children develop a sense of personal worth and cultivate their growth and competence.
Have a routine
Routines provide structure to the day. A reasonably constant routine that has been built around the needs of a child or the children within a family helps build a safe and predictable environment in which everyone can flourish. Children who struggle with accepting limits benefit from the structure of a routine. Anxious children feel safer within a predictable routine. Young people affected by low mood can be motivated by the limited demands sticking to a routine can provide.
Many of us are now aware of the types of food recommended for our physical health - plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, protein, grains and fibre. Even if we don’t always follow the good advice available, there is plenty of it around.
Eating well is just as important for mental wellbeing.
There are added benefits to families who eat their meals together. As well as the social benefits of conversation and companionship, families have found that children tend to eat more vegetables and fruit, are more prepared to try new things and drink fewer fizzy drinks.
Teenagers who eat regular meals with the family in a positive atmosphere report less substance misuse, better academic achievement and more positive mental health than those who eat fewer meals with their family.
Try and ensure that some form of physical activity is built into the daily routine. Physical activity involves moving and nothing more! It doesn’t have to involve competition or achievement, although for some, the more formal aspects of playing sports or activities that demand physical skill or dexterity are important.
Walking, skipping, dancing, housework, gardening, cycling and action songs are all physical activities that will increase the heart rate and give a sense of wellbeing.
Although physical activity can ben an indoor occupation, it is recognised that being outside, in particular being in contact with the natural world (parks, beaches, mountains and lakes) can help reduce stress and anxiety, lessen depression and build a positive outlook on life.
TV and computer games are a major part of most family lives. However, there is strong evidence that overuse of screen time can seriously interfere with the development of healthy brains. Limited access to screens, no more than two hours a day, is a recommended limit. Try and balance screen time with more physical activities.
Tell a story
As well as being enjoyable, looking at the pictures in story books, reading or making up stories is also an effective way of helping children learn how to cope with problems.
A story involves a main character that the reader will identify with and a problem or a dilemma of some sort. Depending on the length of the story, there will be a series of crises’ during which the problem will get worse. The main character overcomes these by turning for help to other people and, most importantly, using lessons learnt and inner resources to overcome the problem in the end. Most children’s stories have a happy ending that will that will make the reader feel correspondingly happy.
Sleep can be one of the first things to be interfered with when our mental health is being challenged. Unable to fall asleep, waking too early, sleeping too heavily and being unable to get up on time. Excessive dreaming, fearfulness, all of this can severely impact on the quality of the day.
Setting good sleep routines early on in life can be very helpful in promoting and protecting our mental health. The bedtime routine of winding down, cleaning teeth, pyjamas, a story or quiet chat, into your own bed, a good night and lights out can set up a familiar pattern that will stand a child or young person in good stead if sleep at some point becomes elusive.
There is evidence to suggest that bringing to mind at least one good thing about the day just closing helps to calm the mind and combat any negative thinking patterns that might be emerging. If used consistently, this practice can help build resilience and promote self esteem.
Children and young people benefit from relaxation as much as adults do. Some children will readily engage with breathing exercises and visualisations to help them cope with stress. Others may find this more difficult.
Most children will quickly learn the difference between a tense muscle and a relaxed one. With practice they can learn how to take a deep breath, exhale slowly and relax the tense muscles. Learning how to manage the bodily signs of muscle tension and rapid breathing associated with stress is an important part of looking after mental health
Be a good role model
As parents, grandparents and care givers, we are the people to whom our children look for guidance. We shape the world they experience, especially during early childhood. Like it or not, we are the models for many of the behaviours we see in our children. If we can model or show by our own actions how we deal with problems as they arise, how we can stay calm, talk about our feelings, admit that we make mistakes and show how we intend to put things right, then we will be giving our children helpful models to follow.
How we ‘model’ or demonstrate how to behave depends on many things including our personalities and our own experience of being parented as children. Attending a parenting course such as The Incredible Years, is a good way of learning not only our own experiences but also the combined experiences of many other parents and professionals.
The balancing act
Parents tend to fall somewhere on a continuum from very lenient at one end and very strict at the other. The excessively easy going parent has few rules and can be reluctant or inconsistent in enforcing them. The child has no consistent boundaries and may feel vulnerable or out of control. The over strict parent can have expectations that are unattainable and may offer consequences for perceived failure that are too high. This can lead to a child feeling the need to ‘be perfect’ and to always be working to impossible standards.
Aim to provide a safe, secure family life that has reasonable expectations but doesn’t put too much pressure on your child.