Building A Better Mental Health Future for Our Children

We are living in an unprecedented time – not only are we facing a global pandemic that is having a profound effect on millions of people around the world, but we are also simultaneously navigating difficult issues like climate change, natural disaster, racial injustice, gender equality, political polarization, economic turbulence, war, etc.  All these factors have taken a toll on our mental health.  Mental health disorders can affect anyone; they do not discriminate based on gender, race, age, ethnicity, occupation, religion, economic class, or ethnic background.  It is very likely that each of us knows someone with a mental health challenge or has one ourselves. 

Our children have been hit particularly hard during this challenging time, with us seeing a mental health crisis in children like never before.  Mental health is just as important as physical health, which is an essential part of children’s overall health and well-being. As a therapist, I am seeing an increasing number of parents reaching out for help with their children’s mental health.  Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harming, internet addictions and truancy are just some of the conditions that are prevailing in young people during this mental health crisis.  Putting the well-being of our children as top priority is paramount now.  Whether you are a parent, caregiver, educator, coach, counselor or anyone who interacts with children and is genuinely interested in their overall wellness, you have the ability to influence them in a positive way. You can make a difference in their lives.

I would like to share with you five things with the acronym, “CARES”, that I believe our children really need.  With those, we can help nurture their mental health:

1. Connection with compassion

We are all social beings that have the innate need to connect.  The social distancing/isolation during the pandemic has made it very hard for us to connect with each other.  Most of our kids today connect with their phones and computers more than they connect with human beings. Research shows that this disconnection has detrimental effects on the mental health of our children.  Dr. Bruce Perry believes that connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity:

“Human beings are social creatures, and because of that, we are neurologically designed to be in relationships with other people. When you see another person and they send a signal that you belong, or they smile and give you a gentle touch, that literally changes the physiology of your brain and body in ways that lead to a more regulated stress response system, healthier heart, healthier lungs, and literally it will influence your physical and mental health.” 

Let’s focus on building true connections with our children.  When was the last time you sat down with them to have a deep conversation that made them feel seen and heard?  When was the last time you played or created something together?  Giving our children undivided attention and being attuned is connecting with them.  Being curious and asking questions to genuinely get inside your child’s world is connecting with them.  When we connect through compassion, we begin to see things from their perspective without judgement.  Dr. Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” 

2. Acceptance and authenticity

Dr. Alfred Adler teaches us that a human being has an instinctive need to belong and feel significant.  Dr. Abraham Maslow places belongingness as the next most important need just above the physiological and safety needs in his hierarchy of needs model.  Many kids nowadays are not getting this basic need met.  As a result, they become people pleasers and do things to please others to seek approval.  They rely on external factors to define themselves.  They also act out and become defiant to get adult attention. 

So why do kids do these things?  Because they are not being accepted for who they are.  Their most important need is not being met – the need to belong.  Children need to know that they are accepted for who they are.  When children are accepted, they will have a sense of belonging which will allow them to be their authentic self.  They will see their self-worth, which then leads them to a more meaningful and fulfilled life.  Truly accepting a child means to let go of our own expectations of who we want the child to be and embrace who the child really is. 

3. Resilience and responsibility

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks or failures.  It is a skill that can be learned and practiced.  Many parents like to teach their kids how to win, but I think it is more important to teach them how to fail and get back up.  Allowing our kids to accept failure as part of learning and growing is one way to teach them resilience.  Do not rush to rescue them from moments of struggle or you will deprive them of opportunity to build their resilience muscles.  Another way to help kids develop resilience is by teaching them responsibility and allowing them to contribute to the family and society.  This not only allows them to have a sense of significance, but also allows them to see how capable they are.  

4. Encouragement and empathy

Oftentimes, we tend to criticize our children and focus on the negatives rather than the positives.  When all our children hear from us is how incapable they are and how much they are doing things incorrectly, they will feel discouraged.  It is important for children to know that we all make mistakes.  Let’s model self-acceptance and self-love even when we make mistakes.  Being encouraged and supported builds self-worth and self-confidence.  Alongside encouragement is empathy. Children need to hear encouraging words that come from a place of empathy. 

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”

– Dr. Alfred Adler.

5. Safety and support

Providing a secure environment for children to grow and develop is very important for both their physical and mental health.   According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is one of the most basic human needs for motivation.  Safety does not only refer to physical safety but emotional safety as well.  We want to provide a safe environment for our children to freely express their emotions.  It is important for parents to talk to their children about feelings.  Dr. Daniel Seigel said:

“Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully.”  

Our goal is to be their anchor so that they feel safe to come to us when the outside world appears to be scary and unsafe to them.  When children have a secure base, they will be more likely to have the courage to explore the world. 

Life is full of unpredictable challenges.  Let’s prepare our kids for whatever lies ahead by fostering their mental health and well-being.  Now more than ever, our children need our support.  Let’s focus on building a better mental health future for our children. 

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

– C.S. Lewis