From the moment our children are born and the doctor takes them to be weighed, measured, and bundled, their health becomes one of our very highest priorities. As parents, most of us are instinctively attuned to every sneeze, scratch and sleep disruption. We are careful to never miss a check-up or ignore a cough.
Yet even as we worry over immunizations and stock up on hand soap for flu season, how often do we take the time to sit back and ask ourselves: how emotionally healthy are our children?
According to The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), "An estimated 21 percent of children and adolescents in the U.S. meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder ... Yet, due to a shortage of pediatric mental health care providers, only 20 percent of these children receive treatment." In June, the AAP released a toolkit along with other resources to help pediatricians more effectively identify and manage mental health issues in children.
As important as it is to get this message to pediatricians, it is just as important to help parents, who may have trouble identifying that their kids are hurting. As parents in today's culture, we find ourselves encouraged to center our daily lives around our kids. Yet as we focus our attention on carpools, homework, and playdates, we run the risk of becoming dangerously distracted from what's most important: how our children feel.
While setting our schedules to make our children a practical priority is an act of genuine caring, nothing is as valuable or has as positive of an impact as staying attuned to a child's feelings, asking her how she is, and allowing her to open up about her thoughts, impressions, and fears.
In general, many of our children's emotions get overlooked, as we tend to pay more attention to how they are behaving than how they are feeling. By maintaining an awareness of our children's psychological state and keeping in mind the following parenting principles, we can become more attuned to our children and learn ways to raise emotionally healthy children.
1. Don't ignore signs that your child is struggling.
Be aware of behavioral changes that could indicate a child is struggling. If a teacher tells us our child has had trouble getting along with other kids in class, we shouldn't just shrug it off as being out of character and hope for the best — just as we shouldn't chuckle at how silly our child looks while throwing a temper tantrum.
What may start off as small behavioral patterns can expand to later behaviors that are concerning. For instance, an exaggerated focus on food or video games can be signs that a child is using these things to cut off pain. If left unaddressed, these patterns can lead to obesity or an addiction to drugs and alcohol. And the fits that seem kind of cute coming from a 4-year-old will seem far less charming from a 14-year-old.
2. Don't trivialize how your child is feeling.
It is all too easy for parents to shrug off our children's moods, chalking them up to developmental stages like the terrible twos or teenage rebellion. Though these stages do contribute to emotional behaviors, it's important to learn to sensitively relate to our children while they are in these states, and teach them how to cope with their emotions.
When we notice an emotional change in our children, it's important to try to understand what specifically is impacting them and to respond accordingly. Perhaps something has scared them that they themselves haven't made sense of or that they aren't comfortable talking about. For example, a friend of mine recently noticed his typically outgoing, independent 13-year-old daughter becoming quiet and anxious about being away from him and her mother. It was weeks before my friend realized that his daughter had been deeply shaken after a student at her school lost her parents in an accident.
As we let our children know we are interested in or concerned about their specific struggle, we invite them to investigate their own emotions and to better comprehend their source. By being open and nonjudgmental, we encourage our kids to be honest with us.
When they do open up, it is important to react with both compassion and strength. Offering both of these responses helps demonstrate a constructive attitude that our kids can adopt toward themselves and thereby develop a resiliency that will serve them well in future struggles.
3. Be sensitive and attuned, not reactive or parental.
From the moment they speak their first words, it's essential to encourage our kids to talk to us. When it comes to influencing our kids, just making rules never works, but maintaining an open and equal sense of communication does. However, for this to work, we must be accountable: we have to live up to our word in order to gain our children's trust. If we invite our children to talk to us honestly, and then are defensive or erratic in our responses, we give them very good reasons not to tell us what's really going on in their lives.
For example, a friend of mine noticed his 6-yeard-old son acting oddly angry and rebellious at the dinner table. Doing his best to react sensitively, he took the boy aside and asked if something had upset him that day. His son replied that his feelings had been hurt when his dad didn't play baseball with him that evening, as he usually did when he came home from work. Inadvertently, my friend reacted defensively: he said that he'd had to work late that day and besides, he hadn't promised to play catch with his son, and then he drove home the fact that just because he was disappointed was no excuse to misbehave at dinner.
Later that night my friend realized that his response had been insensitive. He immediately approached his son and initiated a second conversation with him. He told him that he knew that playing baseball together in the evening meant a lot to him. He said that it was one of his favorite times of his day and that he had also missed playing it that evening. He communicated to his son that he not only understood the boy's disappointment but also shared it.
Then he encouraged his son to talk to him the next time he felt bad, so they could avoid a scene like the one at the dinner table. He also reassured his son that he would really listen to what he was saying about himself and not respond the way he had during their first conversation. Both father and son went to bed that night feeling happy and on good terms with each other.
As parents, we should do our best not to react defensively to our children or try to talk them out of their reality. Instead, we should apologize that their feelings were hurt and help them make sense of their unique perspective and experience. Then we can share our own feelings about how they acted and enjoy an equal, honest level of interaction. If we do slip up and react in a way that is insensitive or inappropriate, it is important to go back and undo the damage that we have done to our child's trust in being able to communicate with us.
4. Invite them to spend time with you.
When it comes to spending time with our kids, quality is much more important than quantity. It is advisable to set aside a specific time in which we engage in activities directed by our children; a realistic time period during which we offer our kids our uninterrupted attention and let them know they are a priority. Letting our kids decide what we do does not mean allowing them to set unrealistic expectations about activities that cost too much in time or money. Rather it is an opportunity to share an activity with our children and create a situation in which they can talk to us.
We can learn about them from what they suggest we do or games they opt to play. Parents who take the time to sit with their young children, while they play with dolls or action figures, are often surprised to hear Barbie saying the very things that Mommy does or Spiderman acting in ways that Daddy does. Games that involve make-believe or pretend can be very telling when it comes to kids. And we shouldn't be surprised when one character reflects the role — and consequently, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — of our own children.
5. If they won't talk to you, help them find a situation they trust.
Many parents wonder what to do when their kids will not open up to them. This is especially true of parents with teenage children. Yet, even if our kids refuse our offerings, it's important to keep putting ourselves out there and to keep letting them know we are there whenever they want to talk. If we are consistently there for our kids, we never know when they may come around.
If our children do not feel comfortable talking to us, we must remember that there is no shame in helping them find someone they do trust who they can open up to. Each of us can think of someone in our lives who meant something to us as a kids — a warm uncle, a dear grandmother, an outgoing teacher. Parents aren't always the easiest people for children to talk to, especially if their struggles involve their parents in some way. Letting our kids know they can talk to someone besides us can help secure their trust in us and will encourage them to deal with whatever they are feeling outwardly with someone they feel comfortable to confide in.
6. If they are in real trouble, get them the help they need.
If a child shows an unusual amount of anxiety, fear, anger, stress or pain, it is important to get him the help he needs. As parents, we must not be too prideful when it comes to raising our kids. How our children feel should always outweigh how we are viewed as their parents. The best thing we can do for our children is to be selfless in our commitment to getting their emotional needs met.
7. Take care of your emotional health.
Although it's important to prioritize our kid's needs, it's equally important to remember that little affects our kids more than how we ourselves are feeling. Children are naturally highly attuned to their parents' moods. Putting on a brave face or denying our frustrations will never fully mask what we are feeling, and these feelings, which our children undoubtedly perceive, are sure to impact them.
Therefore, taking care of our own mental health is a key factor in helping our kids feel happy. No matter how much we fuss over, worry about or take interest in them, if we are not feeling content and fulfilled in ourselves, we are very likely doing more bad than good in terms of our children's emotional well-being.
That is why we, as parents, have to ask ourselves: How am I feeling? Am I getting enough support in my own mental health? How do the answers to these questions influence the way I am caring for my children? Am I focusing on them too much or too little? Am I putting too much pressure on them, looking to them to meet my needs instead of the other way around? Am I relating to them in a personal way? Although we may falsely label such self-reflection as selfish, looking deeper into ourselves and focusing on what lights us up is truly beneficial to the spirits of our children.
To read more about parenting from Lisa Firestone, visit PsychAlive.org — Alive to Parenting.