Supporting Children's Mental Health
Strategies for Parents and Caregivers
Published July 2022
When babies are born, they express themselves by crying. Those tears can mean anything from being hungry to wanting attention or needing a diaper change. As children get older, they develop different ways to communicate those feelings; how they learn to manage their feelings as kids and teenagers will carry them through their entire life.
“The best way for a parent to help their kids’ mental health is to talk about it. You don’t have to use clinical terms, but just have an open-ended conversation about how they are feeling,” says Martin L. Greenwald, MD, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group. He suggests a few ways to start the conversation:
- Pick a time when there are minimal distractions, such as car rides or before bedtime.
- Ask open-ended questions. Questions such as, “How are you feeling today?” or, “What’s your favorite thing to do at recess?” prompt kids to give more than just a quick answer. It also gives them opportunities to develop their ability to express their emotions.
- Be honest and open. Let your child ask you questions and give them age-appropriate explanations.
If your child doesn’t want to talk, reassure them that you are there to support them and try again at a different time.
Healthy Relationships Play a RoleA positive relationship between parents and their children has a positive effect on their mental health. Here are ways to help ensure a healthy relationship that supports your child’s mental health:
- Listen to your child — when they know they have your undivided attention, it shows your child that you are interested in what they have to say.
- Tell your child that you love them and show them by giving them a hug or smiling at them.
- Create a special routine together, it doesn’t have to be complicated. For example, going for a walk or making their favorite cookies are ways to create memories and spend time together.
- Have fun together. Not everything should be a learning activity or challenge. Allowing time for unstructured play empowers kids to be more creative.
- Maintain structure in your home with routines, such as a set bedtime or mealtime. Children flourish with consistency, and this will help reduce stress and create more time for enjoyable activities.
- Encourage your child to connect with people in your community to develop strong communication skills, social intelligence and confidence.
- Spend one-on-one time with your children to help make sure each child feels loved and secure. Understand that they are unique and have different personalities and feelings.
Dr. Greenwald also advises parents who may be dealing with any mental health conditions to consider therapy, this can help ensure that parents get the support they need.
Know When to Be Concerned
All children and teenagers are different. Signs that your child may be struggling with a mental illness may include:
- Signs of aggression for no clear reason
- Changes in academic performance
- An inability to follow directions beyond what is normal for them
- Lack of energy, or feeling tired all the time
- Wanting to be left alone often
- Persistent sadness or feeling constantly irritable
If your child has one or more of these changes, share your concerns with your child’s pediatrician or family physician. While they may not be diagnosed with a mental health condition, it is important to discuss these changes.