It is hard to be a kid. As parents, we wish it wasn’t. But it is.
Conversations about mental health have been a big part of our family life. At some point or another every member of our family has seen a therapist. Perhaps that makes you raise your eyebrows and wonder what is going on over there at the Walling house? Personally, I couldn’t be more grateful for the professionals who have helped my kids navigate stressful experiences- moving across the country, having a major medical condition, confront the challenges of being on the autism spectrum, unexpectedly adding two children to our family and then having to say good-bye to one (we talked about that story here). They’ve faced some tough things in their young lives.
We’re fortunate to live in a time where there is much more awareness of the complex inner worlds of children. Mental health education is now part of the curriculum in many schools, depression screening is part of a trip to the pediatrician for many teen-agers, and parents are increasingly aware of behaviors that signal anxiety.
As a society, we’re beginning to catch up to what psychologists have long known: the foundation of mental health is built in childhood.
No pressure, right moms and dads?
As parents, we want what’s best for the health and wellbeing of our kids. But it can be tricky to determine the difference between the “normal” emotional ups and downs of childhood and signs of deeper distress.
This is intended to provide a brief guide with a few practical tips. Of course, if you have concerns about the health and safety of your child, reach out to someone who is qualified to give them individualized assessment and care (a pediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist). This is a blog article which was not written with your specific kiddo in mind.
Kids and mental health: Where to begin
The experiences and relationships kids have are crucial to shaping the architecture of the developing brain.
We all know that the home environment plays a huge role in how well they can cope with adversity, and their overall mental health. As a Harvard publication puts it:
Good mental health begins with strong foundations, developed during childhood Click To Tweet
“Healthy brain architecture depends on a sturdy foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s senses and stable, responsive relationships with caring adults.”
As an entrepreneur and a parent, it is important to realize that kids are quite sensitive to the ups and downs of their parents. Stressed parents create a stressed home environment. Kids are more sensitive to conflict and strain within a family than most parents realize and they are less able to make sense of these observations than their parents expect.
Your kid’s mental health is largely tied to your mental health. Taking care of yourself, managing your stress, getting help when you need it… these are all investments in the well-being of your children.
However, genes also play a large role in mental health. Significant disruptions in mental health are often a result of the interaction between genetics and environment. Childhood experiences play an important role in whether or not any prior genetic tendency is expressed. In particular, if a child is exposed to sustained stressful experiences, this can “turn on” or “turn off” specific genes.
As a parent, it is a good idea to take an honest look at the traits that seem to run in your family. Is there a history of depression or bipolar disorder? Is there a history of substance abuse? Does your family tend to “run a little anxious”? In my experience, many entrepreneurs come from families with higher-than-average levels of anxiety and mood dysregulation. Simple family investigation can give insight into the genetic and biological factors that might influence how your children respond to stressors and how the physical and chemical structure of their brain are hardwired to process emotion, mood, relationships or trauma.
Mental health and physical health
Mental health and physical health also share a complex relationship. For example, poor physical health can trigger poor mental health, and vice versa. An example given by the American Psychological Association is that of an overweight child being teased by peers. This may cause social withdrawal and self-critical thoughts which are linked to depression. The kiddo may then be unwilling to go out and play and get exercise, perpetuating both poor physical and mental health.
Similarly, there is some evidence that common childhood diagnoses like Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be at least partially caused by not enough physical movement and not enough high-quality sleep.
There’s no way that we can separate mental and physical health. If you are feeling worried about your child’s mental health, it is worth thinking through their physical health as well- are they getting enough sleep, water, movement, nutritious food?
Building blocks of childhood mental health
You can’t necessarily prevent stressors, biological vulnerabilities or the onset of a mental health problems, but you can help support a strong mental health foundation in your child. The basic building blocks of good childhood mental health include:
- Safe and secure surroundings
- Unconditional love of family
- High self-esteem
- Play and relationships with other kids
- Supportive, encouraging caregivers and teachers
- Appropriate guidance and discipline
(Source: Mental Health America)
We can’t predict or control every situation which might lead to stress or trauma in our kids. As hard as it is, we have to accept the limits of our control so that we don’t drive ourselves (and them) crazy trying to manage every possible risk. Our job is to provide a stable emotional base that will help equip them for the challenges that they will inevitably face.
Supporting healthy coping skills in kids
You can’t shelter kids from all forms of stress, in fact, it’s important that kids learn to manage situations as appropriate themselves. Research into helicopter parenting shows that it is more likely to induce anxiety or depression, and kids grow up without the necessary coping skills they need for difficult life situations.
How can you support healthy coping? Here are a few pointers:
- Listen to your child and help them learn to articulate their thoughts, needs, feelings and values. A significant part of healthy coping is being able to recognize emotions.
- Be watching. Recognize when something is overwhelming your child and be ready to step in with guidance. (Knowing the difference between “overwhelming” and “challenging” is important!)
- Model behaviors through your own coping skills under stress. Children tend to react in a similar manner to the adults in their lives, so if you lose your temper and throw things, guess what your kid will probably do? On the other hand, if you model taking a deep breath, perhaps taking a short walk to process your feelings, your child will be more likely to have a tempered response too. It is okay to name your own emotions and make your process very explicit: “I’m feeling really angry. I need to walk around the block to calm down before I talk to you.”
- Help your child to identify the root cause of any stress, and to brainstorm ways to solve the problem.
- Teach your child to think about how negativity (perhaps among people they hang out with) can impact their own feelings and behaviors. Identify people, places or things that cause negative feelings in your child. They may be able to avoid them, or make a plan to not let them impact negatively.
- Help children connect with the world. This can include meeting people and making friends, and making a contribution to their community, which helps them to connect with something bigger.
- Help kids with good physical health: exercise, healthy eating, and a healthy amount of sleep. Their physical health helps to support their mental health – teach them about the importance of both.
- Help kids learn to let things go, rather than have issues hanging on and festering. Help them to understand that some things just aren’t worth their time worrying about!
When to seek help
According to Mental Health America, one in five kids has a diagnosable mental health condition, but nearly two-thirds get little or no help. This is not to say that all of their parents are neglectful, but it often isn’t easy to determine whether or not a child has a condition that requires treatment.
Any sort of transition in life can lead to normal emotional strain in kids. Many, many kids suffer from anxiety and mood symptoms without meeting criteria for a formal diagnosis. In these kids, often those coping skills we talked about will help them to get through in a healthy way.
However, sometimes it is necessary to get professional help for your child, particularly if you’ve noticed worrying feelings or behaviors that don’t settle after a few weeks. If your child is experiencing high levels of distress or they are having feelings or behaviors that interfere with normal functioning (such as at school, at home, or interacting with friends), then it is a good idea to seek an evaluation from a qualified professional. Remember expressions of distress differ with the age of the child. Many children will act out distress rather than name it. Things like sleep disruption, increased tantrums, developmental regression, bullying or picking fights can signal inner turmoil in a child who can’t articulate “I feel sad and I’m not sure why”.
If at any time your child’s behavior is dangerous, or they express a desire to hurt themselves or others, it’s crucial to get immediate help. Usually your first step is to call their pediatrician and ask for a referral to a mental health professional.
Being a loving, supportive parent goes a long way toward raising healthy kids, along with listening and paying attention to what’s going on in their lives. Model healthy coping skills yourself and talk with your child about how they can develop skills to manage stressful situations. Normalize mental health conversations by talking with your kids about things like depression and anxiety. If you’re not sure how- we’ll be covering that on the September 7 episode of ZenFounder.
While we may hope for an idyllic childhood, free of loneliness, hurt or sadness, that’s not in the cards for most of our children. And that’s okay. It is part of growing up. Having a child who is struggling does not signal a failure of parenting. Not appropriately supporting them in the midst of their struggles is how we risk failing them.
Want more content about parenting as an entrepreneur? My next book is all about founder families. Join the ZenFounder mailing list to stay in the loop.