First, what is “good” mental health? It may vary slightly from person to person, depending on cultural upbringing or the presence of neurological differences. However, speaking broadly, good mental health is seen in individuals who can effectively maintain healthy social relationships, perform adequately at work or school, learn at an average rate for their age and ability, and, finally, adequately navigate change and uncertain circumstances.
Encourage Emotional Awareness
Whatever your interpretation of good mental health is, a great place to start is to build your child’s awareness of their own emotions. Help them recognize markers of emotions, such as “I see you’re crying, are you sad? Sometimes when people cry they are sad.” Once your child knows their emotions and starts to recognize them, be mindful of accidentally dismissing them.
Commonly, we feel compelled to comfort upset children by reassuring them that they are safe, by telling them “you’re okay”. While this is a wonderful intention, children can be confused by this message. They do not feel “okay,” so it is strange that a trusted caregiver is insisting that they are.
Instead, help the child come to this realization on their own. Redirect the child’s attention by helping them self-assess “Oh! I see that you’re feeling sad. I also see that you still have ten fingers! Your fingers look okay! Do you still have ten toes?” Work with the child to realize that the situation is not so dire, instead of simply telling them so.
Model Healthy Habits
After developing emotional awareness in your child, some of the most impactful work you can do for them is to model good mental health habits yourself! As much as we may warn children to “do as I say, not as I do,” children will often still mimic behavior that they see from their parents. In fact, one of the biggest indicators that a child will develop mental health issues is a parent having a mental illness. For this reason, one of the best ways to instill good mental health habits in children is to ensure that you have them, yourself. Don’t shy away from discussing your low points with your child, it is one of the best ways for them to learn how to navigate those feelings for themself. “I felt sad today, so I need to be extra nice to myself. Can I have a hug from you?”
Consistency is Key
Next, let’s discuss consistency. Consistency is everything. Make sure to discuss any important lessons or goals for your child’s mental health with influential caregivers. The more the child sees your lessons repeated and reinforced by other trustworthy people, the more your child will believe that whatever habit is important. Sometimes, these conversations can be difficult,
especially when caregivers disagree about mental health habits. If you are the child’s primary caregiver, it is important to advocate for them when other people in their life try to test or contradict your lessons.
A common example of this is a parent deciding that their child should set their own physical boundaries while a grandparent, aunt, or uncle thinks it is impolite to deny a hug or kiss. Explaining your position to family members before they see your child can help minimize issues in front of the child, but if this happens the child will look to you to determine rank– does politeness outrank physical boundaries?
Give Love and Encouragement
Finally, according to a 2019 study conducted by Harvard University, one of the best things a parent can do for a child’s mental health is simply to be warm and supportive. American adults who reported having warm and supportive parents showed significantly higher emotional, psychological, and social well-being. At the end of the day, love from caregivers outweighs any carefully balanced ethical scale.