While we know pretty well how to keep kids physically healthy and safe, from toddler proofing the house to providing nourishing meals, sometimes nurturing a child’s mental health feels more obscure. Yet research tells us that promoting emotional wellness in children is just as important as meeting their physical needs in those early years; one in six school aged children in the US have a mental health disorder and half of those go untreated.
What is emotional wellness?
At its core, emotional wellness in children is the ability for a child to cope with and express emotions, good or bad.
Being mentally healthy during childhood can help kids reach milestones, develop socially and learn healthy coping mechanisms. Emotionally healthy children typically:
- have high self-esteem
- enjoy life
- learn well
- get along with others
- can manage difficult emotions
- are kind to themselves during tough times
- show resilience
- exercise self control (eventually)
- are willing to try new things
So how can parents foster the emotional wellness of their children? Positive, loving and responsive relationships with caregivers are key. Long before they learn to read or write, children are able to pick up emotional skills from their caregivers. And this can start as early as infancy!
5 healthy habits to nurture emotional wellness in children
While not all mental health issues can be avoided, there are habits parents can adopt to promote good mental health in kids.
1. Model healthy behavior
Kids are observational learners. A baby observes adults smiling and eventually starts smiling, too. An older child sees their peers playing a game and quickly picks up on the rules. It’s one thing to tell your kids what healthy habits and behavior look like but we know that they learn best from watching you practice them. So walk the walk. Let them see you take deep breaths when you’re stressed, choose healthy foods at meal times and sincerely apologize when you’re wrong.
2. Provide structure
A child’s brain is not fully developed and when we give them decision-making power over adults it can make them feel really unsettled. Children thrive on structure. Keeping things predictable with a flexible routine around things like bedtime and mealtimes can go a long way. And instilling firm but loving boundaries on non-negotiables, like chores, screen time and doing their homework, allows children to feel comfortable and safe and reduces anxiety.
3. Let them get bored
We get it – activities are fun! And they certainly can help your kids hone skills and make friends. But most children today are overscheduled and it’s leading to burnout and anxiety, even in very small children. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have anything on the calendar. Like so many things in parenting (and life, really), it’s about finding balance. Take a deep breath and let go of the pressure to provide activities for your children all the time. Creativity and resiliency take root when kids get bored. If they complain about being bored, which they very well may, remember it’s not your job to entertain them constantly. Instead, let them figure out a solution. Problem-solving helps kids feel good about themselves and you may all be delighted by what they come up with.
4. Talk about emotions regularly
Teach kids that strong emotions are OK by sharing with them the times you felt frustrated or sad or angry, and how you moved through them. Encourage them to acknowledge and name their emotions. When children grow up in homes where emotions are discussed freely and without judgment, they feel safe turning to family members during difficult times.
5. Tell them you love them (and put your phone down)
At the heart of your child’s emotional wellness is a loving relationship with you. Knowing they are loved unconditionally helps kids feel safe at home. Getting undivided attention from parents reinforces that feeling and shows children they are valued. Schedule 20 minutes each day to put your phone or any other distractions away and engage in uninterrupted time with your kid, whether it’s getting on their level and playing a game on the floor, reading a book or simply talking about their day.
When to seek help for a child’s mental health
Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to a child’s mental health. They can promote emotional wellness by the things they say and do, as well as the environment they provide. That said, professional help is sometimes necessary. Watch out for red flags, like a change in mood or behavior that lasts more than two weeks. The good news is mental health disorders are treatable and early prevention can make a world of difference in your child’s development.