In the recent years, we have all been made aware about the importance of our mental health and how we can get help. We have joined yoga classes, we are taking regular dance lessons, we make time for lunch dates with our mates and some of us, even go for therapy. How about our children?
It is estimated that, at any given time, there are around 50 million children in India suffering from mental illness and that number only spikes if you include the growing number of adolescence in the country. If these statistics don’t implore you to pay attention to your children’s mental health, god help you!
With all the stigma and discrimination around mental health, it might not be easy to talk about mental health with our children. And given many Indians still feel entitled to dismiss children and their ideas, emotions and feelings that are difficult to relate to, our children do not necessary realise that their feelings are valid and that it is okay to talk about it
Keep the conversation flowing:
It is best to start young, and what that might mean is to allow the children to express themselves freely. It is okay if your 4 year old says, “I don’t like gradpa’s hugs because he stinks”. Listen and validate his/her observation first and give a healthy option to deal with such a situation. You can tell your child that, “grandpa may have some body odour and that is quite normal for some people. How about a flying kiss instead of a hug.” You can also alternatively help grandpa with his body odour (bet many others would be grateful for the same). Keep the conversation open. What you do not want to do is tell him/her off for being rude. Expressing what is bothering us to someone we trust is the first step towards mental wellness.
Teach children and adults around them about boundaries. Please ask family and friends to respect your child’s space if they don’t want to hug or kiss. In our culture, that can look very disrespectful but respect has to work for both parties. Your children deserve respect as well. Only if they feel respected that they will honour their own feelings and want to fight for their well-being.
Monkey See, Monkey Do:
Be their role-model. We are not perfect. We have mood-swings or bad days all the time. We get frustrated or angry and lash out for minute things. And that is okay as long as we express those feelings in words and apologise to the children for losing our temper. “I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the noise, sorry I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.”
Alternatively, you can practice boundaries and space with your children so that you don’t lose your temper. Try saying, “ I am a bit tired, can you please ask me the same question when I have finished having my cup of tea please?” This shows children that you are in control of your emotions and it is perfectly normal to ask for space. Do remember to give them the same space when they ask for it.
Normalize Struggle, Make It Personal:
Also, teach them that it is okay to ask for help. If you see that they are struggling with tidying up or are frustrated with some school work, instead of labelling them with terms like ‘lazy’. ‘good for nothing’, ‘careless’ etc, offer to help. Try these..
“I can see you are struggling with “…..” Would you like me to help you. Maybe we can do it together.
“I remember struggling with school work myself when I was your age, is there anything I can do? What kind of help would you like?”
Just like adults, kids can also do with some “me-time”, more than ever before. So do not overwhelm them with school work and extra curriculum activities and make them goal-oriented. Don’t over-schedule their day. Perhaps allow them some time to do what they enjoy doing. Encourage them to have some hobbies, organise play dates even if that includes video-gaming dates. It is always best to play in company of a friend than alone on the computer.
Teach them to live in the moment. This is the best thing ever. This helps children grow in gratitude and resilience in the long run. You can practice this when children are as young as two.
Play games like eye-spy and as they grow indulge them in puzzles and board games. As they grow older, perhaps encourage them to maintain a gratitude journal that helps them or forces them rather to find moments in their day to be grateful about.
Make time for rituals. Have a morning ritual or an evening ritual or both. These rituals help little children anticipate what’s next without feeling overwhelmed.
One To One time:
Make time for some one to one time. When you come home from work or from the market greet your children with your full attention, even if they are engrossed in their phones. Stick your little child’s ugly drawings on the walls and show your appreciation.
Lastly, give them a lot of love, know their love language. Some like hugs and kisses, some like to be spoken to whilst some may like a walk in the park. Find it and work on your bond with them consistently. It is this bond that will prepare them for tough times and redirect them to approach you than run away from it all.
Last but not the least, exercising should be part of your daily life. This can be achieved easily if you encourage it through example. Little children are naturally drawn to parents doing yoga at home or take your child on a bicycle when you go on a run or go for family bike trips together over the weekends. If children are teenager, maybe even hit the gym together. Join a dance class or cricket coaching. Physical exercise by default helps with mental and psychological well-being.