Wednesday, May 9, is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. Every single day in my office I see infants, children, and adolescents who are struggling with emotional challenges. Sometimes these issues are mild and transient like separation anxiety in a nine month old or complex like severe anger outbursts in a teenager with the police involved.
Promoting good mental health within families is one of the most important things I do as a pediatrician. From the first days of life, parents and infants need to be connected emotionally. If a parent is depressed or anxious or if a child is separated from the parents because of illness or prematurity, these early opportunities to learn and adapt to one another are diminished. Recognizing and intervening in the first few weeks or months of life can help reset the playing field and encourage a healthier relationship. Later in infancy, encouraging good sleep for parents and infants, helping anxious parents relax and enjoy their developing child, and encouraging appropriate independence when it comes to eating, sleeping, and exploring the world go a long way to solidify the early relationship between infant and parent. Helping parents handle the normal challenges of separation and stranger anxiety allows the parent and child to feel confident and emotionally well.
As children get older and assert their independence through the toddler and preschool years, talking through discipline strategies and reminding parents of the importance of praise and forgiveness are key pillars in family mental health.
Once children really enter the world on their own in grade school, emotionally healthy parents can guide their children through the trials and tribulations of disappointments, peer struggles, and academic challenges. Showing children how to manage their emotions, express their feelings in socially appropriate ways, and helping children strengthen their resilience to adversity are key. Overly critical parents or ones who struggle with emotional issues that impede their ability to allow their child to fail and at times be hurt, or who are so attached to their child that they can’t allow them the freedom to grow more independent, make it difficulty for the child to mature and negotiate the world in a healthy way.
Adolescence is frought with potential mental health challenges as teenagers struggle to figure out who they are and how they will fit in the world. Issues of sexuality, peer pressure, and a growing need for independence are a potent combination and many teens struggle during this time.
Strong parent-child bonds that are healthy and promote resilience, self-awareness, and self regulation are key to long-term mental health. The message I want to communicate this year for National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day is that emotionally healthy parents are essential to encouraging the healthiest children. When anxiety, depression, stress, substance abuse, or dysfunctional adult relationships are part of the fabric of children’s lives, it makes it that much harder for kids to be emotionally healthy.
When children exhibit difficulty emotionally, it can sometimes mean that parents need some help too. Of course, emotionally healthy parents can have children who struggle with mental health issues and children need help, support, and guidance to help wade through these choppy waters. Healthy parents can make that process easier for everyone.