Mental health and psychological well-being are equally important as physical health and development in children so, this New Year, let us make a resolution to support our children with right coping mechanisms to combat stress and help them live a happier childhood. The importance of psychological well-being in children and adolescent, for their healthy emotional, social, physical, cognitive and educational development, needs to be recognized since ten percent of 5-15 year olds have a diagnosable mental health disorder and there are up to 20 million adolescents with a severe mental health disorder while around 90% of children with a mental health disorder are not currently receiving any mental health services.
In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Himani Narula, Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician Director and Co-Founder of Continua kids, suggested some tips to follow to help build resilient children and provide them with the power to live a happier and fuller life –
1. Parents must model the right coping mechanisms: How a parent deal with their emotions is being constantly observed by children. Performing activities like deep breathing, doing some creative artwork like coloring or painting, or going out for a walk or listening to music are some of the methods which we adults use to destress ourselves. Similar strategies can be introduced to our children to help them cope with stress and strengthen them with a skill for life.
2. Watch for signs of sudden change in behaviour: Sudden change in behavior like being withdrawn or isolated from friends and family, not following routines and withdrawing for activities that they usually like doing are some of the red flag signs indicating that children need support. Timely support and intervention can nip the challenges in time.
3. Follow good and open communication: Healthy and good communication is the cornerstone of responsive parenting. While communicating with your child make a good eye contact, listen patiently to what they have to say, and let them know that you are always ready to support them in problem situations.
4. Help your child to be more organized: Day-to-day schedules, performance pressure and expectations can lead to a lot of stress and anxiety for children. Helping them to become more organized by promoting routines can be helpful. While we are assisting our children with life skills and routines it is also important to set clear boundaries at home.
5. Encouragement and positive feedback increase their confidence and build self-esteem. It will keep them motivated to repeat the right behavior. Lastly its utmost important to make your child feel loved and supported and provide them with safe environment at home to help them grow into resilient individuals.
Talking about the challenges, Antara Sapre, Clinical Psychologist at ADAPT (formerly The Spastics Society of India), categorised some of the challenges and important areas affecting children’s mental health into four broad aspects:
1. Home – Family environment (supportive/neglectful/broken), style of parenting (authoritative, authoritarian, permissive), and attachment style (secure/anxious)
2. School – Classroom environment (co-operation & teamwork/disrespectful and pessimistic), teacher-student relationship (fair and equal/bias and partial), inclusion (in learning and extra-curricular)
3. Peers – Competition (healthy vs unhealthy), inclusion (discrimination/friendship), bullying
4. Academics – Unrealistic expectations (from parents and teachers), pressure (exam performance and marks), conditional love of parents (depending upon the scholastic performance)
She recommended the following strategies:
- Indulge in play therapy – playing games together, activities such as singing and dancing helps in reducing stress, development of emotional and social skills, building confidence, and providing opportunities for learning and connection.
- Check in with your child by inquiring about their day or activities and by involving them in household tasks.
- Remind them about your constant support, and encourage them to share their feelings and thoughts by providing attention and comfort.
- Acknowledge and understand difficult emotions by showing your solidarity and providing words of empathy.
- Listen to your child’s views and try to sort out conflict calmly. It’s important to remember that everyone gets stressed!
- Be consistent, honest, and caring by doing what you say and saying what you mean.
- Develop self-esteem by providing genuine, realistic praise, giving opportunities for independence and helping them develop healthy self-talk
- Seeking professional help when necessary
Husain Minawala, Founder of Beyond Thoughts and Mental Health Counsellor, explained, “You as a parent, have a significant impact on your child’s mental health. You can encourage good mental health by your words and actions as well as the atmosphere you foster at home. By creating enduring, devoted connections with your children, you can support their mental health. Resilience development is greatly aided by a major figure that is regularly present in your child’s life. Fostering self-esteem in children and teenagers will make them feel good about themselves. Listen, and respect their feelings. Create a secure and uplifting atmosphere at home. Whenever possible, assist children in finding solutions.”
He highlighted, “Each child is unique. Check to see whether your child’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviour have changed if you have any concerns about them having a problem. For example, if they say negative things about themselves, find it difficult to concentrate, frequent negative thoughts or changes in academic performance. Carefully monitor their feelings and reactions if they seem bigger than the situation. Try to understand why they feel helpless, hopeless, and lonely or rejected. Watch out for unwanted feelings of unhappiness, worrying, guilt, fear, irritation, sadness or aggression in your child.”
He advised, “Notice changes in their behavior if they want to be left alone more often, cry easily, over-react, show sudden outbursts of anger, trouble relaxing or sleeping, spend a lot of time day-dreaming, seem quieter than usual or have trouble getting along with friends. Mental health issues can lead to physical health changes like headaches, stomach pain, or general aches. Feeling tired all the time. Sleeping or eating problems. Notice nervous habits such as nail biting, hair twisting, or thumb sucking. Observing one or more of these changes alone doesn’t indicate that your child has mental health issues. Consult a mental health expert if the above habits continue for a time and affect your child’s capacity to operate.”
Bringing his expertise to the same, Psychiatrist Tarun Sehgal, Co-Founder of Solh Wellness, said, “In the changing world, where the ongoing pressure of growing up has been rocked by the current fears of diseases combined with a gloomy future from climate change and pollution, there has been a significant rise in the mental health issues amongst children. Two years of remote school has altered their behaviour and amplified all sorts of social disorders. It is time we setup mental health for children as our top priority and our key 2023 new year resolutions. There is an urgent need of normalizing mental health conversations and for schools, teachers, social groups and parents to collaborate.”
Insisting that mental health in children is not just about anxiety and depression, nor is it only about intellectual disability, he said, “Every child will have unique needs to seek support and every child will need some level of support. We should not wait for minor issues to become disorders before acting. Children’s mental health support need to start from a preventive structure. The need is to enable a series of tools and solutions (from self-help tools to guided support to the availability of a non-judgment safe space to a structure for therapy). National Education Policy (NEP) has well defined solution for mental health for children. The initiation point is for the schools to follow it. Secondly, schools need to invest significant amount of children’s time in beyond academics, be it sports, dance, music, art or other avenues to decompress. This also ensures there physical fitness as well as problem solving abilities. Thirdly, schools need to have an open door policy- it’s essential that students know they can come and talk about any issues or concerns they have. A dedicated team of trained professionals can also be extremely helpful in achieving this. Such professionals can also help in early diagnosis of developmental disorders, such as autistic spectrum disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD), ADHD, separation anxiety, childhood depression, and issues in behavioural conduct. Early diagnosis can also help in ensuring early treatment, and subsequent better future outcomes.”
Most important of all, Indian parents and adults need to understand how they can help lessen the burden for their children and when speaking to them, parents must quit using judgmental language. Providing a supportive and loving environment for children to express themselves and listening to them can do wonders.