Mindful parenting: Prioritising children's mental health while taking care of your own

Karishma Jangid
New Update
Why and how should parents prioritise children's and their own mental health

Parenting consultants and parents inform us of the why, what, how, and other concerns about children's and parents' mental health issues and illnesses.

"If we give our children sound self-love, they will be able to deal with whatever life puts before them."

bell hooks

Thanks to the evolving awareness, we have started taking mental health seriously. We still have a long way to go, but terms like mental health, therapy, self-care, self-love, and others are gaining more space in our collective vocabulary. However, when we think about mental health, we think about adults. We believe only adults struggle with mental health issues because we feel only we are struggling in life. There's a misconception that children have it easy and their mental health does not need specific consideration. As young minds navigate the complexities of the world, their minds are like little sponges soaking up everything around them. And it's a lot to take! So, taking care of their mental well-being is like giving them the superpower to tackle life's ups and downs with ease.

"Many believe that children don't fully understand what's wrong and that they will forget about it quickly. That it is normal for children to throw tantrums and shout and children can be punished into maturity. Many think that children cannot experience mental health issues, but children can. According to the CDC, the most common mental illnesses in children are anxiety, depression, Odd Conduct disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other eating disorders," says parenting consultant Dr. Debmita Dutta.

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What affects children's mental health though? "Neglect, abuse, trauma (such as the loss of a loved one), and lack of secure attachment," Dr Dutta informs. Phones are a nuisance too. "This (smartphone) industry thrives on addicting children to distraction, getting them to dislike aloneness and boredom, causing dependence on devices for constant entertainment and connection. Unfortunately, this can reduce creativity and self-esteem, and make children unable to control impulses. Overall, they make children dependent, causing mental illnesses," she explains.

The signs and symptoms of bad mental health include sudden behavioural changes. The child may start getting angry or start crying, and they might not be motivated to do anything. There can be changes in eating habits, sleep, and anxiety over regular things. "Our mental health greatly affects our physical well-being. Emotional distress can trigger physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, and fatigue in children. Stress-related issues can lead to aches, pains, and difficulty walking. They can even cause serious conditions like asthma or irritable bowel syndrome," Dr Dutta briefs.

Bad mental health affects children's future too. "A child's mental state can significantly impact their future outlook. Mental health issues can lead to anxiety, depression, and a decreased ability to interact with the world. This can decrease courage and confidence, making it difficult for the child to create relationships or succeed in life. Additionally, mental health issues can reduce resilience, making it harder to recover from failure. Mental health issues can hinder these qualities. So, it is important to address them in order to ensure a positive future for the child," Dr Dutta explains.

Children require an adult to co-regulate with and typically this adult is the parent. "It's not just the circumstances themselves, but the parents' response to those circumstances that teach the child how to respond to different situations. Bad behaviour brings bad responses, and bad responses bring even more bad behaviour. It is a vicious cycle! A parent's job is to provide safety and help the child build self-esteem. As adults, we can help children navigate life by viewing stresses as challenges to overcome rather than overwhelming threats," advises Dr Dutta. She further explains that teachers play a similar role as parents during school hours and can help children build their capabilities and convert threats into challenges.

"I create a safe and comfy space so that my child can express himself freely. I create time slots for creative activities like reading, Lego, and some outdoor park time. We should accept our children the way they are rather than expecting them to be good at everything," states Riddhi Deora, a parenting coach, and a mother. Dr Santosh Yadav, a paediatrician and a father promotes the usage of affirmations. "Affirmations, such as offering words of encouragement, love, and reassurance, can foster a positive sense of self-worth and security in your baby. Asking your child why and paying attention to their demands or cues allows you to understand their needs and respond appropriately. By being attentive to their wants and desires, you show them that their voice is heard and valued," he says.

Dr Dutta suggests something similar. "If you want your child to be mentally healthy, then the top priority should be to avoid comparing them with others or criticizing them. Instead, provide positive feedback to help your child improve. Don't try and control your child's life, this can reduce their self-esteem and overall resilience. To help your child, educate yourself about their needs and empathize with them. Don't overschedule them either, spend quality time with them and listen to their thoughts and feelings. Remember, good mental health is critical for success in every aspect of life," she advises. Along with knowing what to do, one also needs to know what not to do. Hence, Dr Dutta advises, "Use positive feedback. It helps your child to improve. Do not try to control children. When we try to control children and make the decisions for them, we reduce their self-esteem. This reduces their resilience, and their ability to make decisions. Instead, help them learn how to take control of their own lives."

However, even after gentle parenting, if a child is showing symptoms of bad mental health, it might be time to get help. A psychiatrist can give the diagnosis and prescribe counselling and/or medicines. "Counseling can greatly benefit children by providing a new perspective but it's important to remember that the environment plays a huge role in a child's well-being, which is why parents need to be counselled as well. By changing the environment, parents can help make their child's counselling more effective," Dr Dutta advises. Further, she suggests that encouraging kids to play achieves the same mental benefits as traditional meditation, especially if the child has anxiety or trauma. Play puts them in a meditative state where they can unwind and relax, making it vital for their mental well-being.

However, it is easier said than done. Parents themselves face a lot of difficulties. For instance, as a doctor working in an emergency field, Dr. Yadav often finds himself struggling to balance his professional responsibilities with his role as a father. "Time is a challenge. I often have less time than I would like to spend with my baby. It can be difficult to connect with my little one, especially when I am busy or preoccupied with work-related stress. However, I have found that prioritizing quality over quantity can make a big difference. I try to find small pockets of time throughout the day, such as during mealtimes or bedtime, to connect with my baby. It may not always be easy, but it is worth it," he says.

But being a caregiver is an exhausting job! Constantly maintaining children's mental health takes a toll on parents' mental health as well. "As mothers, we have to juggle many roles for our children. We are their coaches, teachers, friends, and caregivers, and we must transfer the right values to them. Sometimes, even despite our best efforts, we can feel overwhelmed when things don't go as planned. For instance, if you bake a cake for your child, you hope they will enjoy it, but children can be moody and may choose not to eat it. This can be discouraging, and we might feel like our effort was wasted. As mothers, we face many such situations, and it can be challenging to know how to respond when we lack knowledge about parenting. I believe that every household in India should have parents who have learned about parenting and can provide the best guidance to their child," confesses Deora.

Owing to such challenges, perhaps families can unite to take care of their precious little munchkins. For instance, Deora loves reading to her son and doing activities like word ladder, word games, 7-minute walks, and lots of hugs and kisses. "I think all of this helps my child feel good and happy. On the other hand, my husband does different things like playing football, and chess, practising the keyboard, and listening to some rock music with our son." The quality of engagement is different, but it serves the same end goal of ensuring a happy environment for their son, eventually resulting in good mental health. As a family, they engage in simple activities like a gratitude circle and weekend drives to express gratitude for this beautiful gift of life. "Hence, as partners, we both play our part in ensuring good mental health for our son."

We hope this inspires you to take better care of your own mental health along with that of your child! Here's to happy and healthy kids!

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Mental health awareness anxiety depression children's mental health parents mental health mental illnesses