When we think about mental illness, we often focus first on psychiatric symptoms, such as excessive worry, depression, anxiety, and hallucinations. Challenges in life often accompany these internal symptoms. Poor mental health can disrupt social relationships, hamper the ability to work, or threaten self or others. Keeping your children mentally healthy is as important as keeping them physically well.
In the developing child, we hope to see:
To foster these qualities in our children, we start by taking excellent care of both mother and baby during pregnancy. Once a baby is born, we create an environment that is low-stress, while strong on attachment and support. Kids need ample opportunities to grow and learn. Their environment should be jam-packed with healthy stimulation that is sensitive to a developing child’s abilities and reactions.
Punishing children physically can lead to many problems. It upsets the child (and the parent), develops anger and thoughts of revenge, and carries with it a risk of injury. It discourages creative and problem-solving skills. It can lead to abusive behavior later in life. Since physical discipline gives an immediate effect, it may seem like an effective way to handle a difficult situation. However, the long-term disadvantages outweigh the short-term benefits.
Still, effective discipline is an important part of childrearing. Children who grow up with responsibilities and chores have more self-confidence than those who do not. Parents who keep an eye on their children’s activities, from birth through the teen years, reduce the chance that their kids will get into serious trouble. Although kids may complain, supervising your children will not create a poorer parent-child relationship. While we place great value on freedom of expression and personal choice, healthy child development generally begins with a great deal of structure. A strong base allows independence later in life.
The brain is the point where mental health begins. We can try to improve life with various coping strategies, but in the end the way your brain works determines and defines your mental health. We must do everything we can to help the brain develop while protecting it from injury.
Generally speaking we can work at preventing mental illness and its consequences in two ways. One is to reduce the chance of a mental illness developing. The other is to reduce the impact of a mental illness. Within these two areas, there are many things parents can do to promote the mental health of their children. In the past, many births had complications and many mothers died in labour.
Start with a healthy pregnancy. The quality of care that we now have available in Canada has removed many risks of childbirth. Still, many babies are still born in less than ideal conditions. Good prenatal care improves the chances of your baby being born healthy and normal. As well, it is now painfully obvious that drinking alcohol during pregnancy has terrible effects. Smoking can also harm the baby. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. If you need help to stop, get it.
Make the first year and a half of life blissful. A baby doesn’t need to learn about the harsh realities of existence right away. The brain changes throughout life. During the first 18 months or so, the array of nerve connections that are retained is greatly influenced by the child’s experiences. If these are painful and inconsistent, the baby’s brain will be geared for survival in a dangerous, chaotic world. If a child experiences warm and caring support with plenty of physical and vocal interaction, the developing brain perceives a world that is pleasurable and predictable.
Form a relationship with an alternate caregiver. Have someone else on hand who can care for your child, giving you a break. For many, the other parent will fill this role. In other cases, a close relative or friend can help. Parents can also frequently trade babysitting responsibilities with others in their circle. If you are a single parent and don’t have someone that you can trust, a family support centre, childcare provider, or local child development centre can help you. No one can care for a child non-stop. Guilt-free personal time is essential for your own development. The beauty of this is that it will be reflected in a positive way in your child.
Develop positive parenting skills. Improve your ‘warm support’ skills, and work to give your child clear expectations, structuring the environment for success. ‘Positive parenting’ has been shown to improve mental health and reduce problem behaviour such as bullying and delinquency. Many programs are available to help you learn about good parenting skills. Look for one or press your government to set one up in your community.
Read to your child – often. Children need to be entertained, learn, bond, and listen to words. All these benefits and more are wrapped up in each reading session. It’s like a megavitamin for the mind.
Ignore most of what you hear about self-esteem, but work hard to develop self-confidence. Self-esteem (how we value ourselves) may be a good measure of how a child is feeling. Still, attempts to change it have not produced positive changes in other important behaviours. However, self-confidence, or belief in our own abilities, is very important. The self-assurance and optimism that follow both small and large accomplishments have a good effect on mental health throughout life.
Ensure that your child experiences success often. This does not necessarily mean victory in a competition. It might mean drawing a picture, solving a problem, learning a new word, discovering a way to help someone, and so on. You can almost always comment on some sort of progress or show appreciation when a youngster has been helpful. Still, avoid telling children that they have done something wonderful when it is not true – they are usually much too smart to believe it!
If you are an alcoholic or are depressed, you are probably not doing your best for your children. Get help. Do not worry about revealing your problem to those close to you... they already know. You only think that you have been fooling them.
Set goals for your children. We may worry about over-burdening children by setting goals for them. This may happen if the goal involves a specific achievement, is beyond the child’s ability, or if pressure to succeed is intense. However, setting goals can do a lot of good and are unlikely to harm. A goal like ‘I want my child to be accomplished in whatever area her talents lie,’ is more flexible than saying ‘My son will be Canada’s best hockey player,’ or ‘My daughter must win at the Olympics.’ Goals that focus on the child by developing areas of strength and interest, such as saving for education, selecting activities, guiding discussions, and so on, allow the parents to be supportive. Several goals can be adopted with the view that they will change as the child’s interests, opportunities, and talents unfold.
Get treatment if your efforts to deal with an issue are not working. Your public health nurse, family doctor, or local child development centre all have a great deal of general knowledge and can help you get started. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists are most often used for serious mental health problems. However, many other professionals may be able to provide appropriate help. These include social workers, nurses, teachers, family doctors, and the clergy. If problems are encountered, parents need to learn about forms of mental illness, the roles of various professionals, and how to work with them. Organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association can help. There are also organizations for specific illnesses such as the Schizophrenia Society of Canada. Many books are available on how to deal with your health professional, but start by overcoming the shyness that you may feel about asking questions. If your practitioner does not discuss the problem, what caused it, what should be done, and what the likely outcome will be, then ask, ask, ask. Most health professionals will answer your questions. If they don’t know the answer, they will say so and may refer you to someone with more specialized knowledge. However, this is not always the case. Do not ever be satisfied with vague answers.
Get involved. For a parent or health care provider, most prevention activities are individual in nature. That is, they are about what I can do for a specific child or patient. However, many, if not most, prevention activities should take place at a community, provincial, or national level.
You can get involved by improving community programs, such as access to prenatal programs or positive parenting programs. You might also focus on improving the way government policies or laws affect our well-being. Do some taxation laws or education policies leave some children behind? Do they make it easier to raise a child? Do we live in a healthy community?
Get involved, and if that is difficult, ask your elected official to make it easier to get involved. Two important elements of democracy are voting and citizens involved in making decisions. In Canada we are very good at the first but surprisingly poor at the second. Working with other parents, you can help your child and others by building your community and contributing to healthy public policy.
Remember, some mental illnesses are not yet preventable. For instance, in spite of some promising research findings, no one has yet shown that the onset of schizophrenia can be halted. Still, we can prevent some of the difficulties that people with schizophrenia are likely to encounter.