There are several key things you can do to support your child’s mental health through childhood and into their teenage years.
Your child's mental health is affected by what you give them from the moment they are born. The most important thing to do is to love and care for them. This includes doing things so they:
feel a sense of belonging
have a key person in their life such as a parent, grandparent or carer
develop the ability to cope with life
enjoy a range of positive experiences.
(Anna Freud, 2018)
What kids need from parents
Here are the top 10 things children need:
the basics – food, clothing, warmth, shelter and love
to feel safe and secure
cuddles and good touching
lots of smiles
praise and encouragement
respect for their feelings
your time and care.
Regularly spending quality time with your child gives you a chance to check in with them about how they are doing and the things going on in their lives. If you think your child may be anxious or depressed, talk with them about how they are feeling. Make sure they know they have someone to talk to.
Here are some tips by age to help them develop in a way that supports good mental health development:
Babies up to 1 year
Babies need to feel safe with the people around them, and to be kept safe from things that could harm them. They cannot yet control their emotions or understand logic, but how you respond to them now will make a difference to how they develop these in future. Soothe them when they are upset and name their feelings, eg, “I can see you are feeling very disappointed/angry/frustrated right now”.
Toddlers (1–3 years)
In this stage children need to start learning to think and solve problems, and how to appropriately express and handle feelings. They are developing a sense of themselves, and learning empathy and how to cooperate with others. Interact in positive ways in your own relationships. Play with your child and show them how to take turns and to use words to express needs, wants and feelings. Talk about feelings and how to recognise and cope with them.
Preschoolers (3–5 years)
In this stage children become very aware of themselves and of the people and things around them. Help your child to express feelings, and to connect thinking, feeling and appropriate behaviour. Talk to them about feelings and appropriate behaviours – in this stage they are learning to recognise, express and control their emotions. Reward positive behaviours with notice and praise.
School age (6–12 years)
In this stage children are developing their sense of self. They are learning and practising a wide range of new and essential practical, social and emotional skills. Model control and respect for others in your relationships. Acknowledge their negative emotions and talk with them about strategies to deal with them. Encourage them to come up with these themselves. Praise both effort and achievement, and help them to deal with disappointment.
Teenagers (13–18 years)
In this stage children are developing their emotional, practical and social independence. Huge changes are taking place in the brain and the limbic system (emotion) is very much in the driving seat. Expect moodiness, mood swings, dramatic outbursts, egocentricity and provocative behaviour. Novelty-seeking and an increased need for social connection with peers make this a time of both risk of harm to themselves and others, and of potential for great personal and creative growth. The risk of harm is increased by isolation from adults, so maintain strong, secure relationships and open, respectful lines of communication with your teen.
What kids need at school
A good home contributes hugely to kids’ mental wellbeing. If that’s in place, the school can get on with teaching. But when there are issues at home, such as abuse or alcohol and drug use, children’s self-worth can be very poor.
School-aged children spend close to half their waking hours at school, so it’s important their mental health is protected there. Tell teachers what’s happening in your kids’ lives so they and the school are prepared to respond to their needs. If the child misses out on learning due to issues at home or with their mental wellbeing, this will have long-term effects on them.
Tips for schools
Schools must be safe emotionally, socially and physically.
Staff and students must be encouraged to reach their full potential.
Self-worth for everyone should be fostered through policies, programmes and practices.
Schools should model positive mental health.
Effort as well as achievement should be acknowledged.
All actions and communications should be respectful.
Teachers should be caring and nurturing and foster warm relationships.
Young people should be encouraged to seek help when they need it and have access to counseling services.
Schools should promote resilience and positive thinking.
Connectedness to others should be encouraged.
Schools should support and refer students showing signs of mental health problems or who are at risk.
There should be easy means of accessing immediate crisis support.
Schools should involve students in working in partnership with teachers and parents.
Video – an animation designed to give young people aged 11–14 a common language and understanding of what mental health means and how you can look after it.
(Anna Freud, 2018)
A number of district health boards run free clinics, such as the Kari Centre in Auckland DHB, for kids with a mental health problem. Some also run clinics for kids with a parent who has a mental illness. Ask your GP or mental health team whether this would be helpful for you.
School Based Health Services aim to improve students’ access to a range of health services and currently operates in consenting schools from deciles 1 to 3, Teen Parent Units and Alternative Education facilities. Nurses help students access relevant primary health services, provide youth development checks and can refer students experiencing mental health problems to the right supports or services.
If you need help with parenting, phone the Parenting Helpline 0800 568 856 for free help and advice.
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