This is the second in an occasional series of columns offering practical information and suggestions for coping with the ongoing mental health crisis in children.
As we leave May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, it is only the beginning of available tools and knowledge to empower parents, grandparents and the community to address mental health concerns in our children.
Previously discussed was the impact time in nature can have on our brains and emotions. Next up is the importance of building an environment for a child to exist in that fosters emotional wellness. As previously emphasized, mental illness is both treatable and preventable and these strategies help with both. It does not take daily yoga, expensive therapies or soothing aromatherapy to create an environment that fosters emotional wellness; it can be a lot more basic than that.
— Start with family dinner. Only 30% of American families have regular family dinners, yet the mental health benefits are huge. Studies show that children who consistently have regular meals with their families have less depression and anxiety, are healthier and get better grades. One study even showed that teenagers actually like and look forward to family meals! Define family and dinner any way you want, but set aside time three to four days a week to share a meal with your child.
The world is a busy place, and it seems like there is a target on the back of family mealtime, so you must be prepared to defend it. Ensuring that all neighborhoods have access to healthy food at affordable prices, finding easy-prep recipes and educating families about the importance of family dinner will have an impact on mental health and go a long way toward prevention.
— Next up is self-care. It is very difficult to make a difference in a child’s life if you are struggling on your own. Take the time and resources needed to be in a place where you are emotionally healthy so you can pass that on to your child. Go to the doctor, the therapist, the gym, a friend’s house, whatever you need to be healthy, calm and happy. Make it happen, as it matters for both your child and you.
Studies show that children who live with a parent with a mental health disorder are twice as likely to develop an emotional or behavioral disorder. As we shine the light on mental health in this country, let us focus it on parents. Early diagnosis of postpartum depression, support for single parents who are at higher risk for mood disorders and easy access to mental health therapies are all critical for the prevention and treatment of behavioral health problems in children.
— Be present. Research shows that it only takes one consistent, caring adult in a child’s life to prevent mood disorders, violence and substance abuse. We know from studies of the workplace that distractions greatly decrease productivity and quality of work, the same is true of parenting. It is so easy to be distracted when we are supposed to be focused on our children. Put the phone away, turn off the TV and quiet your thoughts when you spend time with your kids. Listen to them. Ask them open-ended questions. And show up for school conferences, sports games and recitals whenever possible.
— Create a world where there is something to believe in. What are your family values? Whether they be religious or socially conscious, or simple commitments, it is helpful to make them prominently known to your child. You do not need to mandate that your child have the same values, although chances are, if you make them a priority, your children will model you.
Values provide a framework for decision-making as well as structure for kids and teens; this in turn fosters resilience and security when life gets hard. Values can be respecting elders, prioritizing time together, recycling, charity work, showing gratitude or even something seemingly trivial such as celebrating a holiday. A child who is raised with known values will use them to develop their own core values, which will serve as a guidebook through difficult times.
Many of us are overwhelmed when we think about where to start with mental illness prevention in our own children and in the community. Yet, there is a lot of research out there that guides us on ways that we can provide an environment that is conducive to mental wellness. The tough part is creating the time, space and resources to make them happen. We must do that or we will not make progress through the current mental health crisis. Making a commitment in our own homes, schools and communities to change the environments our kids spend their time in will make a quick impact.
The recent school shooting in Texas tragically emphasizes how hard it is to be a child and a parent in these times. We must continue to persevere and find a way to end violence against our children. Please talk to your children about these difficult topics, and listen to their concerns. You may need to have short conversations repeatedly as they begin to process things. A good book for the 3- to 7-year-old is “Once I Was Very Scared,” by Chandra Ippen. And let your child see you speaking up and working together with each other, regardless of political affiliation, to ensure that this never happens again.
Dr. Pia Fenimore, of Lancaster Pediatric Associates, answers questions about children’s health. You can submit questions at Features@LNPnews.com.