A Parent’s Guide to Fostering Mentally Healthy Children
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso
Children are a vital but often neglected demographic in terms of mental health treatment. I don’t mean that we provide them less or poorer care but that we often fail them in key areas that can cause the most harm to the adults they grow into. Children can be a bit of an anomaly because they have a way of being that is sometimes beyond adults. When we become adults it can be difficult for us to recall what being a child was like and we can lose that ability to relate with them the older we get and the more sucked in we get by adult distractions and aspirations.
Children are often just as amazing as they are fragile and that can make it hard to determine what we as adults should be doing for them or what the right way to raise them is. Now I should be clear here. I am not a parent…or am I? Let’s think about this rationally. There used to be a common saying that it takes a village to raise a child and the true meaning of that is easy to miss. At heart we are all parents in a sense. Anytime we are in a position to care for a child we owe that child respect and love. I’m not a huge fan of children personally. I have dogs and the other day I took one of those dogs out for ice cream and fussed over her like she was a small child with no qualms whatsoever. I do however consider children to be a grouping of tiny human beings that deserve better than what they get sometimes.
I know if I had a child I’d want them to be treated with the same respect as every other person when I took them out into the world. This means that their problems,ideas,feelings and everything else matter just as much as an adult’s or more due to their impressionable and innocent nature. It doesn’t mean your impression of this article hasn’t already dropped because I said I wasn’t a parent though because there are schools of people that seem to think you can’t give child rearing advice when you have no children. Those same people might also swear by a parenting book written by an author with no family or children but that’s a completely different can of worms then the one we’re opening now. I have worked with children quite a bit, as I used to work as a childcare aide at one point and have also done a lot of volunteer work with children over the years as well.
On the flip side I know all too well what kind of damage a mental health problem can do to a childhood. I lost pretty much all my time in high school because I had to focus on therapy appointments and mental breakdowns instead of hanging out or making friends. Having depression dropped me from honors to scraping by at graduation. I lost a lot of friends and I had to grow up way too soon. Mental health issues take a hard toll on a child’s mind and rob them of precious time they can never get back. There needs to be a more concentrated effort on tackling mental health in a way that benefits children instead of tossing them around and playing guessing games with treatments.However, my main focus for this article is on children in general because while mental health professionals may be be part of the equation later,fostering happy and mentally sound children starts and mainly occurs in our homes and society and not in a therapist office. Mental health issues need to be taken seriously no matter what the age of the person but if we treat the children better they will naturally grow into healthier adults and benefit from not losing as much quality of life.
Don’t Downplay Their Problems
One of the worst things our society is prone to doing is dumbing things down for kids. This isn’t always a bad thing but in some areas it’s not only demeaning but harmful to the child. When we automatically assume things for kids need to be dumbed down and padded for safety we often make the mistake of also not taking the situation as seriously as we would with an adult. The habit of making a kid version has unfortunately also spread to the mental health community. I can recall personally that when I was still in treatment as a child I wasn’t taken as seriously and I was often over-medicated or incorrectly medicated because doctors didn’t listen to me as much. We sometimes assume that a child will have child-sized problems and that’s very far from the case for a lot of them.
A lot of children are still dealing with adult-sized problems and that’s especially true when a mental health situation is involved. The key thing we need to understand as adults is that things like depression,anxiety,pain,and stress are just as difficult for a child as they are for an adult. Often it can be overwhelming depending on the child’s age because they they don’t have the mental fortitude we develop into adulthood. A child in a tough situation needs the same level of treatment as an adult. The size of the patient being smaller doesn’t mean their problems deserve less serious attention. If your child or a child you interact with is saying or doing something you’d find alarming if an adult said or did it then take it seriously. Children are just as capable of being beaten down by mental illness as an adult and if they aren’t treated properly they will grow into a true cause for concern. Children are also very capable of calculating the choices of self-harm or even suicide when not addressed properly which means they may never get the chance to become an adult.
My first suicide attempt was when I was around fourteen years old and it felt like the whole world was crashing around me because I had an adult-sized issue getting treated like a child-sized nuisance by medical professionals. I didn’t know how to express myself in a way that would get people to really listen and I couldn’t truly grasp what was going on with me so I cut myself. Don’t assume your child’s emotional height is going to be harmless. Children are capable of a lot more than people give them credit for and the human mind can be a complex but fragile thing to work with.
Children are a risk group for harmful behavior because they often don’t have the mental development to process consequences or heavy topics better understood by an adult. They don’t have the same amount of self-control or self-preservation and a mental health issue can often be hard for them to truly understand or carry the weight of without the proper treatment. Don’t fall into the trap of minimizing a problem because the person having it is smaller than you. Mental health issues should be a 100% concern whether a person is five or fifty.
On the flip side of that, don’t think that you can bow out as a parent. Just because they are getting treatment doesn’t mean your job is over or that you can take a step back. Make it a point to be an active participant in your child’s health and treatment and make sure you create a good home environment for them to feed into that. You can’t expect to dump the bigger part of the situation on the medical community or a pill. You still need to be there 100% for your child for them to find success. If you see your child not getting adequate care,look for the adequate care. Educate yourself and do the research. Most of all, let them know you care and take the time to really listen to them. Make an effort to truly understand what your child is going through and how you can help them. Children being shuffled through the mental health system are still children at heart so they need an adult who can parse through the more complicated issues to be part of the process. They need to know that you take them seriously and love them for who they are.
If the situation is grieving and not full blown mental illness, take the time to sit and talk to them because grief affects kids just as much as it does adults. Teach them about grief,talk to them about ways to handle it and listen to their problems. A lot of times children can appear okay but not be okay at all and they will manifest that in a completely different manner than an adult. Teaching kids about handling grief and other difficult life stages is often overlooked but as adults we need to make sure they are properly equipped to handle things like that so they can learn to handle everyday life. That’s not a therapist’s job. At the end of the day we need to remember that children are still human so don’t equate lesser stature with lighter problems. It’s every person’s right and expectation to be valued and taken seriously.
Lift up Instead of Beating Down
When I was growing up and even now as an adult I had a very active mind. I was always creating,thinking, and throwing what I thought were awesome ideas to anyone I could find. Children are supposed to be active and think with less limitation which clashes quite a bit with the restrictions we have to squeeze into as adults. But there’s a a fine line between letting kids drift too far and giving them the right amount of encouragement. You obviously have to tell your little one they can’t realistically be a fire truck and that some of the things they love to watch or play aren’t real. Instilling a sense of grounding is something kids need as much as room to flourish.
The key is with approach. I’ve worked with kids a lot over the years and one of the things I found is that really fostering growth with them lies somewhere in the middle. Sure, they can’t be a firetruck when they grow up but maybe you can encourage them to think about being a fireperson instead. The worst thing we can do to a child is crush their dreams or let them think their ideas are stupid because that makes them afraid to dream and voice their opinions as time goes on. Finding ways to turn their dreams onto a more obtainable road is always a better option.
There is absolutely no harm in small children having a wild imagination or being out on a limb though. Reel them in if you have to but if you don’t have to and they aren’t harming anyone, let them be kids and not see the glass ceiling while they have the opportunity to do so. We have such a limited time of seeing the world as having no borders and truly believing anything is possible but those happy and carefree times can be comforting to look back on as adults. Think of it as building a nice cache of feel good moments for your child just in case they need them down the road. Maybe thinking back on that cardboard box that was briefly a rocket ship will come in handy when they’re trying to brainstorm on the job or take a mental break from understanding their first mortgage. Creating good memories for your child matters.
The alternative is that in those same tough situations they’ll just gain more stress remembering how you scolded them for having an imagination or not fitting whatever mold you envisioned for them. Children who grow to be thinkers are those that are allowed to branch out and use their minds as children without being belittled for it so let them have dreams and opinions. They have a lot more years of having the world naturally beat on them as adults without being raised that way. Let them enjoy coloring a giraffe blue or creating their own board game or imaginary friend. We all have bad or strange ideas here and there but you can’t go at a child in that situation the same as you would an adult.
I actually recall that as a child I decided one day to color on the wall. It was all over the white wall and right at the top of the steps in bright cerulean blue. My parents painted over it naturally but my mother never stopped me from creating art. She fostered it in a less house destroying outlet by getting me art supplies and when I developed depression years later my art and writing saved me from practicing a lot more destructive coping outlets. The things we do for children matter, so before you have that instinct to scold,use it as an opportunity to keep your child thinking and creating instead. You can teach and foster good behaviors without crushing dreams.
While they’re children and in your care build them up enough that they can develop the skills they need as adults and nurture the person they are instead of trying to squeeze them into a mold. The world is a lot bigger for children and the worst thing we can do as an adult is fence them in and foster fear and anxiety when they should be happy and feel loved.When we listen,educate, and foster creativity and critical thinking with children as opposed to just beating them down the foundation is built for them to become bright and healthy adults that have the tools they need to succeed in life.
Understanding the Lasting Effects of Invalidation
During the two years I was unemployed before having my last job I was coaxed into something called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or DBT for short. It was there that I learned about the concepts of invalidation and validation as well as how they affect a person’s development. Over time I have accepted that I do have multiple family members that heavily utilize invalidation and I was heavily affected by it. To this day I often have it burned in my mind that my feelings and opinions just don’t matter and I will sometimes just reflexively fold and internalize in a tough situation because of that. It’s actually to a point where the effects leave the house and I will mentally shrink back from aggressive people and a lot of times most men I encounter which greatly limits my quality of life and happiness as well as my ability to form fully healthy relationships. I’m not a stupid person or a weak person and I don’t think any person in a verbally or psychologically abusive situation is but we can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that brainwashing and similar practices aren’t limited to low intelligence or lack of character.
I’ve already discussed in the above section what it’s like to build up or tear down a child and cause lasting damage but invalidation is a little different. Invalidation can leave deep scars because when your negative speech reaches the level of invalidation you’re actually treading into the territory of being psychologically and verbally abusive to the other party. Invalidation goes beyond telling a child they can’t be a firetruck to further down that road where you tell them they can’t be anything. When we show overt signs of not believing in or caring about children because of who they are they will often blame themselves and carry those invisible scars well into adulthood. Invalidation slowly chips away at people and eats them up on the inside. When we invalidate a person we are quite literally breaking what make them who they are, their minds.
As an adult we sometimes instinctively want to pass on whatever chip is on our shoulder and we can carelessly pass it to a child who isn’t mentally equipped to process that kind of response. When we transfer our bitterness to interactions with children we dump a heavy weight on them that will cause lasting damage. One of the things that I think is even harder to process for some people is that psychologically we are the basis of how children learn to develop relationships. We will grow up to base a lot of friendships,romances, and even work relationships on our family interactions. This can cause a lot of problems because if we invalidate regularly we teach those children how to form dysfunctional relationships that they will define as being healthy. It might surprise you that a lot of adults are measuring their adult relationships and successes with a crooked ruler without realizing it.
But what’s the difference between invalidation and the previous section you might ask. Invalidation is similar but still a different animal. The key elements of invalidation are in the details. When we invalidate we attack the person in a more direct manner. It’s going after their actual ability to think versus the thing they made from the thought process. Invalidating hits something intangible and intrinsic in the person which makes a much deeper cut than just putting down a thing they’ve made or an act they’ve done. It’s like going to destroy a tree but when we invalidate we take out the roots so the tree can never grow back.
Invalidation and also it’s positive counterpart both touch on the core of the person and what makes them like their feelings,habits,behaviors,or thoughts. It affects their actual sense of worth and preys on their desire to be valued and loved as a person. People who get verbally abused instead of acknowledged as a person will often attack themselves and not the other person. They will hold onto and ruminate on negative concepts because they don’t have a proper outlet to vent those things. Over time that negativity and low sense of self-worth fester and poison the invalidated person,shaping them into an unhealthy thinking adult. That unhealthy adult will develop practices into adulthood based on a skewed foundation.
The way we treat our children can snowball with sometimes disastrous effects and this can play into a very bad scenario if a mental health issue comes into play on top of it. In some cases these people develop many behaviors you would see from something like domestic abuse or even PTSD.
If you are working with or parenting a child you should always keep in mind how impressionable young minds are. You might forget it ten minutes later but that child might carry it for a lifetime because their minds and hearts are still being shaped. You might not think a word,action, or phrase is that bad but a child might learn to draw pain from a carelessly used phrase or gesture used to dismiss them. It sounds stupid but to this day I have horrible reactions to hearing the phrase “Let it go.” because a relative used it so often to sweep my feelings under the rug growing up. It was probably a few useless words to them but it’s a pain I have to relive repeatedly because of some very negative word association that took place when I was still too young to work through it. It’s almost morbidly funny how that song from Frozen is just a huge cringefest that gives me chest pains.
Always allow children to express themselves because forcing a person to choke down and bury all their feelings and opinions will not only make them believe their feelings don’t matter but that extensively they don’t matter as people.Let your children know that they matter as people and are loved so they can begin to love themselves. You might be saving their life or at the very least allowing them to find some happiness in their future pursuits.
The Dangers of Underestimating
As adults it can be easy to assume we know better than a child but that’s not always the case. I notice especially that we are in a time where the thinkers and the activists are more often children. Children are capable of deep thought and at early stages can understand the base concepts of right and wrong. Children can feel,think, and express on levels most adults actually aren’t capable of sometimes because very often children are not locked in by inhibitions that affect adults.
A child will say what’s on their mind long before an adult waiting for it to be socially acceptable to do so in their social group and environment. Long before we become jaded and judgmental adults we are free-thinking and deeply feeling children. Unfortunately adults often assume to the point that a child’s thoughts and opinions get dismissed. It’s a mistake that can go either way. Some children will use that as fuel to become a force to be reckoned with and some will huddle in a corner and be afraid to speak out again. The fact of the matter is that children matter just as much as adults and so do their thoughts and feelings. They are not only thinking in a way that can lead to innovation in our society but in a way that is not clouded by adult judgement and distraction. Their thoughts and feelings often come from a much purer place.
Our automatic response of assuming a child is coming from a place of little understanding is wrong. Children aren’t stupid in any sense of the word. They can be ignorant and they can be innocent but they can also be insightful to a point that it’s scary. They aren’t driven by a lot of material things or adult stresses. They aren’t bogged down and blinded by politics. They may not have even developed a lot of common prejudices yet. This makes them honest and I think sometimes that honesty is scary to the adult world. As adults we need to drop that gut instinct to silence children and give them the respect they deserve. At the end of the day those children will grow up into the next generation and they will become the driving force for a world you may have to live your golden years in. You might have the ability to stomp on them now but imagine when that shoe changes feet and you’re the one on the ground.
Instead of silencing and underestimating children we need to encourage and nurture them. We need to make them feel like they are valued people and worth respect and success in life. Most of all we need to really listen because untainted world views come from children and those are things we need to pay attention to. Those things are the truest reflection of our modern world and if we want true changes to happen in the world we need to embrace the ideas of our children.
Trying to Relate and Connect
An important thing we sometimes overlook is taking time to truly connect with children. As adults we’ve already grown out of the mental state to truly relate to them in a lot of ways but it’s actually a sign of respect when we at least try. One of the things I’ve found working with children is that they respond positively when adults don’t look down on them. Sitting and engaging at the child’s level or making an effort to really listen to them and understand them as people can go a long way. Children may be smaller than us and they may even be less experienced than us in some ways but that doesn’t mean they can’t enrich us in some way.
Taking time to truly engage your child will not only benefit you but communicate to the child they matter as a person and mean something to you. It will give them a sense of value and give them the acknowledgement they naturally crave as people. It doesn’t matter if you can’t quite get to a point of full understanding. Just actually listen and respect the child. Sometimes meeting another person halfway is all you really need to do. Don’t engage a child in a patronizing manner. They aren’t stupid and they will pick up on the belittling tone. As I mentioned before, children are capable of deep thought. You might be surprised what kind of awesome conversation you get if you take some time to sit and try to engage your child instead of letting the world babysit them while watching them from a distance.
I’m actually not horribly old yet so I can still in most aspects find a way to relate with kids or teens which brings me to the double value of this experience. Talk to your children! How are we suppose to learn about each other if we don’t talk? Parenting doesn’t entitle you to a bond with your child. No adult role does. If you want a bond with a child you have to talk to them and have an exchange. Try understanding them and share with them. One of the things that has been a huge but sometimes too eye-opening trait with my mother is that she was not the type of parent who acted angelic or perfect. When we started becoming teens she would sit us down and be very open about her times growing up and yes, her mistakes growing up. As adults we have the opportunity to share our experiences and help children grow and learn. That’s very important. Don’t be cocky and patronizing. It’s okay if children see an adult as being human. Avoiding being real with children will make them feel inadequate and put a huge gap between you and the child more than likely.
The benefits we miss out on not engaging our children more in these modern times are ones that have benefited plenty of other past generations when parents were less afraid of the idea of parenting. Teaching your child that other people matter and real human interaction matters is something you can do without emptying your wallet and it will benefit both of you.
Identifying the Target Group
A very growing concern I have is that more and more we fail to identify when a child is a child. What I mean is that we have a society that encourages children to embrace things better meant for adults like certain fashions,makeup,language or access to technology they aren’t yet responsible or knowledgeable enough to use. As a parent it’s naive to expect that the world is going to censor itself for your child or in turn that your child will magically develop skills and understandings you aren’t willing to take the time to impart to them.
Let’s be real here,folks. Who really grew out of being a child at ten or fourteen? The truth is that we lose sight of the fact that even though they may seem grown up at some ages they are in fact still children and we still have a responsibility to them as adults. Your teenager may be working but you still need to help them out by teaching them work ethic and how to handle money. Your little ballet dancer might have more makeup then a single forty year old woman on but she still has the heart and mind of a child so you need to teach her about unsafe and unsavory people. We need to refocus as a society on the fact that children are children no matter how much they look or sound the part of an adult. Understand that giving them a cellphone doesn’t mean you never have to have a real talk. Don’t step back and give them the keys to the city because they learned to drive a car. Part of being a parent is actually being there. Don’t let the world distract you from being a parent.
A huge part of children developing into healthy adults is having a parent that steps up to actually guide them in all of their childhood,not just the parts that are convenient for you. You are the main source your child and even children you temporarily care for in some cases has for learning about the world. If we don’t take the time to educate them and then send them out into the world,life will eat them alive. You have all the time in the world after they’re independent to form an adult friendship with your adult child but while they’re still an actual child you need to do them the huge favor of being their parent because you’re the only person who can truly do that for them. Be involved in your child’s life and make sure they aren’t going out into the world with no resources or defenses.
Opening Doors Instead of Closing Them
Parents have so many things they can send their kids to these days. The amount of extra activities,camps, and places you can shoo your child off to are pretty much endless. But the problem I see so much is that a lot of parents are just shooing the kid off. They don’t seem concerned about using their child’s time wisely and instead fill their schedules with back to back pointless activities the child may or may not have signed on for.
I think part of it is fear. We don’t want our kids idling or hanging out in questionable spots so we just book them up so heavily they never have free time. What would the alternative be exactly?
In the same sense that I mentioned nurturing creativity there a lot of better ways to keep your kid out of trouble and doing things that are good for them. Stifling children from what we perceive as harmful and scary is wrong. Kids socializing is a good thing because they do need to learn social interaction and connect with peers to have a good sense of balance. Don’t just filter the people they interact with though. Teach them that there are good and bad people. Help them learn it’s not okay to trust everyone and that sometimes people don’t have their best interest at heart. You above all need to be a moral compass as a parent. But you have to make that effort. Instill in your child that they need to make sure the people in their lives are the right people and not people who are toxic to them.
Things like video games,movies, and music are a huge concern to modern parents and they should be but just not to the degree it has been. Instead of blaming media and trying to get the media removed try some actual parenting and educate your children. Have actual discussion with them about the context of the media and actually make an effort yourself to understand the context of it. Don’t just assume. Dangerous things are going to find an opening when it comes to preying on children so don’t get a laser focus on some game or music group that isn’t the actual root problem. Teach your children about interacting with strangers and educate them about the context of the things they’re taking in. Teach them right from wrong and help them make objective decisions about things they encounter. Just teach them to critically think in general. There are a lot of issues where parents want to attack something outside their home for corrupting their children when you can just as easily preempt it with some good old fashioned parenting and your child will have the tools to face the problem and grow as a person.
When questionable or sensitive topics are in the news take the time to sit down and discuss it with them. Don’t just let them soak up the agendas and theories in the media like a sponge. If your child wants to explore different topics or even things like religions or lifestyle types don’t stifle them. Let your children learn and go on the journey with them so you can guide them along the way. When we just slam doors to children and never open another or explain what’s behind the door it can create a communication gap between you and the child and possibly foster resentment or eventually encourage rebellion and reckless activities. It’s only half of the equation if you deny your child things without justifying why.
One of the biggest steps we can take as the adults in a situation is to be honest,practical, and courageous. Teaching your kids that education and reasoning can help them work through difficulties will be a much more worthwhile lesson then stopping them from having any freedom or enjoyment in life or making them too wary of taking risks which are necessary at times to be successful as an adult.
Committing to Advocacy
Whether your child has a disability or not, you need to act on their behalf as a parent as they grow up and make sure they are not just safe but well prepared. Children sometimes have a staggering lack of rights and can’t always stand up for themselves or just an understandable gap in knowledge about something going on in their environment. That’s where you come in as a parent. Protecting your child means that you respect them as a person,listen to their opinions and problems,and make priority to aid them. It doesn’t mean making decisions for them and it doesn’t mean dictating or controlling them.
Advocacy in it’s purest form is an act of love. That means we see a valid injustice that the person is struggling with and step in to aid them in the way that is most beneficial to them. Advocacy requires understanding,honesty,and genuine concern. When we think of advocating for a child it means being rational and reasonable. Advocacy doesn’t include our own agenda. It is for the benefit of the other person. But advocacy isn’t always straightforward for a parent. You might be thinking something like standing up when your kid is being bullied or getting your kid away from a dangerous relationship such as an abusive love interest or predator but let’s look deeper than that.
A lot of the underlying points so far have been that you need to parent and educate. I’m going to say that again here. There are a lot of cookie cutter situations but what about the ones you missed like explaining to your child about racism,sexism or interacting with disabled peers. You might be the parent of a bully and need to stop turning a blind eye so you can explain to them they’re doing something wrong. For a parent advocacy means tough love. It means a lot of tough conversations that we don’t always want to have. It means broaching subjects that our children run into all the time instead of burying them under the rug.
Being a parent and doing the right thing for your child isn’t always going to cast you as a superhero but it’s something that needs to be done. Don’t just lean toward being your child’s biggest fan. Step up and become their advocate so you can prepare them to take on the world.
This article may be labeled with the word parent but don’t be fooled. Children are people and we can all benefit from treating other people better. Making sure that the children in our society have all the resources they need to grow into healthy and successful adults is something we should all be willing to accept as a moral responsibility. Remember that each of those children will grow into an adult and help shape the future of our world. Whether you know them for a second or a lifetime you help influence the adults they become in some degree.Every child deserves respect,love, and a fair chance to grow up without fear of being who they are.
If you’re a parent with a child then you need to nurture them,teach them, and love them. Don’t cheat them out of an enjoyable childhood and don’t discount their feelings. Children may have endless energy and ideas with no glass ceiling but they still have human hearts and minds that need protection and care at the end of the day. If your child is dealing with a disability they need you even more and you need to do the morally responsible thing and be their advocate. Work to help them grow into happy and productive adults so they can go into the world without scars. Whether they are disabled or non-disabled children are our future so let’s all make an effort as adults to invest a little more into preparing them for their futures.