Supporting Mental Health in Kids: 4 Tips for Parents

It’s no secret, we’re seeing more concerns regarding mental health in kids.

The most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children and adolescents include ADHD, anxiety problems, behavior problems, and depression. Among those aged 3 to 17 in the United States, the CDC estimates that 9.8% have ADHD, 9.4% have anxiety, 8.9% have behavior problems, and 4.4% have depression.

That’s over 32% of our kids diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

And an even larger number of children and adolescents experience mental health difficulties WITHOUT being clinically diagnosed. According to the World Health Organization, mental disorders are increasing worldwide.

Mental health must be viewed as an essential part of your child’s overall health, in addition to their physical health.

Both mental and physical health affect how individuals think, feel, and act. And as parents, we can play an important role in our children’s mental health.

Here are some strategies parents can use to promote mental health in kids.

1. The Importance of Acknowledging Feelings

Children of all ages feel, and they feel A LOT. Often, these feelings can be intense, whether positive or negative. And as adults, we may not always understand the emotions, which sometimes seem illogical to us. For example, we may think, “What difference does it make if you drop a chip on the floor? You have 10 more!”

Despite our personal, grown up feelings, it’s essential that we listen to our children and validate their feelings. A thoughtful response would be, “It totally sucks that you dropped your chip! I can see how upsetting it is because you have one less chip now.”

In the above example, a parent both affirmed how their child was feeling and also helped the child recognize what they were feeling.

And when something sad happens, a child needs the reassurance that the event that just happened was indeed sad and that it is OK to cry. You have allowed them to express their feelings and support them without trying to change what they were feeling.

We should not try to change our children’s feelings, but we can (and should!) certainly talk about them.

As adults, our temptation is often to hide our feelings. And that has become so ingrained in our culture that we can’t escape it. However, children need role models; they need to see from you, as their parent, that it’s OK to feel — that all feelings are OK.

As part of the conversation, we can teach children some coping strategies or techniques to relax when emotions become overwhelming. Physical activity, writing, coloring, snuggling — these are all great strategies we can engage in with our children!

2. Calm Down Techniques for Kids

  • Deep belly breathing or “flower” and “candle” breathing. Breathe in slowly and deeply through the nose like smelling a flower, breathe out slowly through the mouth like blowing out a candle.
  • Focusing on body parts and what they are feeling, squeezing different muscles, or relaxing individual body parts one at a time.
  • Practicing gratitude for the good parts of your day, for your family and friends, etc. 
  • Positive self-talk or repeating affirmations such as, “I am loved” or, “I am worthy” to self.
  • Visualization, such as making a pizza (getting out the ingredients, mixing them together, etc.) or a favorite tree (imagine the leaves, and place each thought you have on a leaf, which then floats down a stream).
  • If possible, simply change the environment (e.g., leave the room).

3. Knowing What Type of Love Your Child Needs Most

All children have a need to be loved. It’s our job as parents to provide unconditional love, to make sure that our children know that we love them no matter what.

According to Dr. Ross Campbell, the author of How to Really Love Your Child, a top issue among children and source of many childhood challenges is not feeling completely and unconditionally loved by their parents.

Love Languages

The ways in which children need love to be expressed to them may differ. That’s where love languages come in, as outlined by Dr. Gary Chapman in his book titled 5 Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively. These five love languages include: physical touch, acts of service, gifts, quality time, and words of affirmation. 

If you are unsure what your child’s primary love language is, take some time to observe them, noting how they express affection to you.

Often, how they express their love to you is how they want to be loved in return. When you use the love language your child wants and needs, you can help improve mental health in kids.

Using Love Languages

  • Physical touch – examples: hugs and kisses, hair stroking, high fives.
  • Acts of service – this means doing things for your child (examples: making cookies for when they get home from school, helping them clean their room).
  • Gifts – this means special surprises (note: these don’t have to be things you BUY; they can be flowers you pick, for example).
  • Quality time – this means time spent together, no distractions, just you (examples: dance parties, making a meal together, a trip to the playground).
  • Words of affirmation – this means providing loving words and praise (examples: writing an “I love you” note for their lunch box, saying, “Great job!” after an accomplishment).

4. Keep the Doors Open to Communication

Communication is key. Without communication, children’s needs, for parental affirmation of their feelings and expressions of love as mentioned above, cannot be met.

Even when our children are young, it is important to have conversations, ask questions, and spend time together. Keep an open channel of communication.

By starting this early, you’re setting up a safe place for your child where they will feel comfortable coming to you when they have problems or need to talk. If your child feels safe and comfortable coming to you, then you, in turn, can ask them pertinent questions, including questions about their mental health. Asking questions will not only help you learn more about your child, but will also let you know if they’re struggling.

Some good questions to ask your children include:
  • Is there anything you want to talk about?
  • Is anything worrying you?
  • What makes you feel calm?
  • What feels hard right now?
  • How is your body feeling?
  • What are you most looking forward to this week?
  • Is there anyone who is upsetting you?
Overall, love is the most important gift you can give your child, and never underestimate its power.

Loving unconditionally, using your child’s love language, allowing for and encouraging the expression of feelings, and constant communication will go a long way in your relationship with your child.

By doing these things, you’re also support mental health in kids and providing them with tools for handling difficulties that arise. 

Mental wellness is something parents need to be aware of and focus on with their children, especially due to the rising prevalence of mental health disorders in our country.

If you have any questions about your child’s mental health, please visit your pediatrician or contact a local therapist/counselor. There’s no shame in asking for help. It’s a further demonstration of the unconditional love you have for your child.

About the Author

Dr. Beth Salafia earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Notre Dame. She was a professor at North Dakota State University for 13 years, teaching and conducting research on adolescence, socioemotional development, parenting, and body image. In 2021, she joined BIO Girls as the Director of Programming and Research, where she hopes to make a difference in girls’ lives. She is the proud mother of a thoughtful, energetic 7-year-old.

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