Keeping children healthy and happy involves looking after their mental health as well as their physical health.
Mental health is about having a healthy mind and body, and influences how we feel about ourselves, what we do, how we think, and how we relate to others.
Good mental health helps us to form positive relationships with others, handle ups and downs and generally enjoy life.
With good mental health, children can feel good about themselves and be more open to trying and learning new things.
How parents and carers can support children’s mental health
Things can happen in children’s lives that make the risk of developing mental health problems more likely. It is usually not possible to eliminate all the risk factors that affect your children, but there are things that parents and carers can do to reduce the impact of stress and help them build strengths for effective coping.
1. Listen to children’s concerns
Having a caring adult to turn to when they are troubled, someone who will listen, understand without judging, and help them solve problems, is a critical protective factor for children’s mental health. Listening to children and understanding their concerns lets them know they are important to you. Remember, however, that children may not always be able to explain how they feel. By observing their behaviour and gently inquiring about it, you can often get a clearer picture of how they are feeling.
2. Provide reassurance
Children often worry that the bad things they experience will happen again or get worse. For example, in a family breakup, when one parent or carer leaves the family, children often become anxious that the remaining parent or carer will also leave them. Similar worries are common when someone dies or is hospitalised. Often these kinds of fears are expressed through behaviours rather than words, such as becoming clingy, or being fearful about sleeping by themselves. Showing that you understand children’s fears and providing reassurance and support is important for helping them cope.
3. Provide security
Different kinds of stress and change can be very disruptive to family life. Maintaining regular routines, such as bedtimes and mealtimes, reduces disruptive impacts and helps to provide a sense of stability and security for children. Similarly, children are reassured by knowing that a responsible adult is taking care of them and looking after their needs.
4. Build children’s strengths and allow for vulnerabilities
Providing encouragement and positive feedback helps children build conﬁdence in their ability to manage difﬁcult situations. Acknowledging and appreciating the help and support that children provide to you during stressful times also helps to build their strengths.
At the same time, it is important to give children permission to not always have to be strong. Children who take on signiﬁcant caring roles when parents or carers are struggling often hide their vulnerabilities. Their desire to avoid burdening parents and carers can cause additional hardship for these children, who need to know that support is available to them and that there are adults who will take care of them.
5. Make the connections and talk to educators
Early childhood educators and school staff can provide more effective support for children when they understand some of the pressures they may be facing in other parts of their lives. It is often very reassuring for children as well as for parents and carers to know that educators understand their difﬁculties and are ready to provide support. Staff at your child’s school or early childhood service may also be able to provide you with support and advice, or help you ﬁnd support services that can assist you and your children.
6. Seek additional help
If children show signs of emotional or behavioural difﬁculties, it is important to seek professional help early, so that problems can be addressed before they get worse. Getting support for yourself, through family and friendship networks, your child’s school or early childhood service, or mental health or community services, is also very important. Getting support helps to build your own resilience so you can provide more effective care for your children.
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