Promoting important mental health concepts early in a childs life can help parents and caregivers instill good habits in their families and promote an appreciation of the world and its many ups and downs. A mentally healthy family can refer to the biological family as well as the various families that evolve at work or in early childcare and education settings.
Talking about your feelings and sharing your thoughts as a positive way of dealing with problems is not a new idea. But communication is more than just addressing your feelings. It is promoting relationships in which you not only share your thoughts, but also listen to anothers point of view. In doing so, you establish open, honest relationships while also instilling a sense of respect and trust.
Such principles are important in adult relationships and in communicating with children. The manner in which you talk with children has a direct effect not only on the relationship itself, but also on the childrens long-term growth and development.
How well a family communicates and the way they interact (calm discussions instead of yelling; active listening versus distraction) may have a direct impact on their childrens self-esteem, self-confidence, trust in the surrounding world, and comfort in taking appropriate risks, exploring new situations, and making and keeping friends.
Take time each day to discuss events, priorities, and activities with your own children and the children in your care. Listen to their frustrations, hopes, and concerns. Ultimately, you are helping promote strong, healthy relationships, encourage effective communication, and further the mental health and emotional well-being of the children.
Role Models and Boundaries
Children have a keen sense of awareness when it comes to the actions and behaviors of others, particularly those who care for them. Consider the adult who screams at a toddler for doing something wrong but then admonishes the same child for yelling indoors while playing.
Such behavior not only sets a bad example (that yelling is okay) but also may be confusing to a young child who does not understand why he or she is being punished for exhibiting the same behavior as the caregiver. When adults establish boundaries, children know what is expected of them. It is natural for children to try to get away with something from time to time just to test their caregivers. Such times are great opportunities for you to re-establish the importance of boundaries and emphasize that they exist to protect the children, not to limit creativity or exploration.
Children tend to feel more secure and confident in the world around them and to develop a sense of trust and faith in their caregivers when direction is clear, consistent, and reliable. Knowing when to set boundaries is as important for adults as it is for children.
Stress serves a purpose, such as when it prompts you to make necessary changes or helps to protect you from a dangerous situation. Handling stress on a regular basis through exercise, relaxation, or meditation promotes a sense of well-being and refreshes and rejuvenates the body.
In contrast, stress that is internalized or ignored often wears you down until you feel fatigued, ill, or lethargic. Excessive stress also may lead to drug or alcohol abuse or addiction as a means of coping.
Teaching children to handle their stress through creative pursuits, physical exercise, and talking about their feelings goes a long way toward instilling a sense of confidence that they can handle situations without being overwhelmed.
How adults deal with change also is important to a childs emotional awareness. Change is inevitable, whether happy (receiving a promotion or getting married) or sad (losing a loved one or moving away from friends and family).
Children who internalize these events and believe that this is an appropriate way to approach life are setting themselves up for social and relational issues later. They also may miss out on the development of important lifelong skills such as identifying and properly managing feelings and behavior.
By demonstrating to children the natural grieving process associated with sad or unexpected events, you can better prepare them for future conflicts as well as ensure emotional healing on your own behalf.
For many children, the early childcare and education environment represents an extension of their home or family life, so setting a good example is especially important. Children who develop a strong bond with their primary caregiver, be it a parent or childcare provider, are happier and more secure than those who lack this attachment.
Prevention and maintenance must be given priority since problems that are ignored may lead to mental health disturbances later in life. By promptly managing problems and taking care of your mental health each day, you help to ensure long-term mental and emotional health, with the resulting benefits for you, your family, and the children in your care.
Diona L. Reeves
Freelance writer and former employee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Child Care America program
National Institutes of Mental Health, 6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 8184, MSC 9663, Bethesda, MD 20892-9663; 866-615-6464; www.nimh.nih.gov
National Mental Health Association, 2000 N. Beauregard St. 6th Fl., Alexandria, VA 22311; 800-969-NMHA; www.nmha.org
Americas Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2005, www.childstats.gov/pubs.asp
Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, www.surgeongeneral.gov
Presidents New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, www.mentalhealthcommission.gov