Every day we hear more about escalating problems due to stress and anxiety in young people, including increasing rates of stress-related behaviors and illnesses: drug use, suicide, depression, and aggression are all on the rise. Sometimes these alarming numbers are linked to the number of hours young people spend on technology, sometimes to the growing society-level disparity between poverty and wealth, sometimes to the hateful vitriol from politicians and other leaders of our communities, sometimes to the declining availability of mental health services, and sometimes to the increased availability of guns. All these factors have roles to play. They are interconnected, and each exacerbates the problems associated with the other factors.
Parents’ concerns about the negative trends feel more immediate today than usual. We are reeling this week in Toronto, recovering from the horrors of another mass killing event in a city ranked as the safest big city in North America. We’ve learned that the killer was a messy casualty of the mental health system, a man who had issues starting in childhood with psychosis and depression, a young man who fell between the cracks of the mental health system, found himself a gun, and started shooting in the midst of a crowded neighborhood enjoying a beautiful summer evening. He shot down children and adults as they chatted together in a park, had dinner in restaurants, sat at sidewalk patio tables, and strolled down the street eating ice cream.
This event, along with too many others like it elsewhere, and all of the other allied problems individuals and communities are experiencing, leads to some fundamental questions: What does mental health look like? What should we be striving for, individually and collectively? Focusing on our bigger objectives can help turn our minds and attention away from horror, blame, and fear, toward the positive action we need to take in order to slow down, and perhaps even reverse, this vicious downward spiral.
As I mulled all this over, I read Tracy Dennis-Tiwary’s latest blog, in which she refers to Erich Fromm’s definition: “Mental health is characterized by the ability to love and to create, ….by a sense of identity based on one’s experience of self as the subject and agent of one’s powers, [and] by the grasp of reality inside and outside of ourselves, that is, by the development of objectivity and reason.”
Practical Suggestions for Encouraging Children’s Mental Health
I find Fromm’s definition inspiring and helpful. It leads to practical suggestions for parents who want to encourage their children’s mental health:
1. Listen actively, with love. From infancy on, establish a caring connection with your child, characterized by calm, patient, attentive listening. The best way for your child to develop their ability to love is to feel your love, and experience what loving feels like.
2. Encourage your child’s interests. Support your child in finding and expanding their areas of interest into areas of competence. Creativity is grounded in competence, which nourishes confidence in a positive identity, and resilience.
3. Nurture your child’s autonomy. Whenever possible, say yes. Support your child in deciding what they want to do, and doing that, in safe, guided, age-appropriate ways. As they get older, support them as they experience the consequences—positive and negative—of their decisions. Autonomy is at the root of a sense of agency, of seeing oneself as the subject of one’s life, rather than an object for others to respond to and direct. This is important for all children, but especially so for girls, in a culture where females are too often seen as objects for others to look at and/or manipulate.
4. Listen, talk, discuss, and argue. One of the best ways for children to develop a solid connection to reality is through lots of conversation at home with their parents, with a healthy dash of respectful (and sometimes heated) discussion. Children learn what you value both by observing how you live your life (at home with them, and in the world), and by observing your reactions to their challenging those values. Help them learn to be objective, and to reason wisely.
5. Strive for balance. Mental health is intertwined with physical and intellectual health. Make sure your child gets enough sleep, good nutrition, lots of exercise, plenty of fresh air, sufficient intellectual and creative challenges, and ample time for playing, daydreaming, and mulling things over.
6. Practice and teach mindfulness. Mindful breathing and other self-regulation techniques will increase your child’s ability to concentrate on tests, calm their anxieties, and cope with challenging situations. Mindfulness has proven one of the most effective tools for coping with attention problems, stress, anxiety, and even autism.
7. Seek help. If your child isn’t showing signs of a growing capacity to love, create, and see themselves as the agent of their own life—that is, if they aren’t thriving, and you are worried about their mental health—it is time to seek professional help. Consider consulting a psychologist or other counsellor who specializes in dealing with young people.
For More on This Topic
“Digital Mental Health in the Era of Techlash,” by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary
“Why Are Teens So Stressed and What Can Break the Cycle?” by Daniel Keating
“Depression Is on The Rise in the US, Especially Among Young Teens,” by Andrea Weinberger, Adriana Martinez, Denis Nash, Misato Gbedemah, and Sandro Galea
“Why Are More American Teenagers than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis
“Toronto Ranked Safest City in North America by The Economist,” by David Shum
“Help Your Child Move Toward Happy Productivity,” by Dona Matthews
“Supporting Children’s Mental Health: Tips for Parents and Educators,” by the National Association of School Psychologists
“New Website Offers Families Tips on Children’s Mental Health,” by Kids Matter
“Is It a Mental Health Problem, or Just Puberty?” by Dona Matthews