How important is mental health in the early years?
“Early mental health is like building a solid foundation to a house,” says EDC’s Mary Mackrain, an expert in infant and early childhood health. “It provides a secure, safe base that everything else in the house relies on.”
And the earlier that parents and caregivers begin building this foundation, the better. Here, Mackrain and Nancy Topping-Tailby, an early childhood mental health clinician at EDC, offer some concrete actions to help children develop resilience, self-esteem, and confidence.
1. Hug your child
“At the most basic level, just hug your kids and tell them that you love them,” says Topping-Tailby. “That's how you build self-esteem.”
This simple display of love helps build children’s resilience and sense of belonging, both of which are key for promoting health and wellness in the teenage years. Research has even shown the power of hugs to protect against illness and stress.
2. Enjoy the moment
Spending uninterrupted time with your child can promote positive mental health, but doing that can be challenging in an era of constant distraction. Mackrain recommends a few things parents can do to be more connected with their kids.
“Enrich children’s daily routines by sharing looks, smiles, conversations, and stories,” she says. “Putting down the phone and really engaging in uninterrupted play helps your child learn how to play, feel valued, and get along with others throughout life.”
Topping-Tailby agrees. She suggests that parents set aside time to be with their children, no matter how old they are.
“Reminding ourselves to live in the moment, and just be with our children, is important,” she says. “It’s sometimes hard not to focus on the next 10 things we have to do. But any time you can set aside for them helps build that parent-child relationship, which promotes positive mental health.”
3. Recognize effort
Both Mackrain and Topping-Tailby say that emotional resilience—the ability to bounce back after a setback—is a key component of positive mental health. Parents can foster the growth of this trait by recognizing children’s efforts and progress in everything they do, says Topping-Tailby.
“If your child is learning to play an instrument, a comment like ‘it sounds like this piece is getting easier for you,’ or ‘you have worked hard to make so much progress,’ is more valuable than just saying, ‘you’re a really good musician,’” she explains. “Children’s self-esteem grows when a parent recognizes their effort, acknowledges their success, and provides encouragement when they struggle.”
She adds that praise itself is not a bad thing—but that recognizing effort and progress helps children learn how to take pride in their own achievements. This builds self-esteem and resilience, which are both essential traits for navigating the many pressures of adolescence.
4. Model good behavior
“You are your child’s best teacher,” says Mackrain. “Be a positive role model and offer children opportunities to observe you being a kind and caring person.”
She adds that it’s important for children to see adults taking care of themselves, too.
“You can only give what you have,” she says. “Find ways to build your personal joy, get rest, and model for yourself what you want for your own child.”
5. Talk about mental health with health care providers
Because mental health is an important part of overall health and wellness, talking to the pediatrician about your child’s mental health is an important part of any wellness visit, says Mackrain.
“Parents and caregivers should ask what mental health behaviors and skills are appropriate at different ages,” she says. “And talk about anything that worries them.” Mackrain suggests that parents document specific examples of any concerning behavior in advance of a visit and then share them with the pediatrician. The following questions can also help get the conversation moving between parents and pediatricians:
- What are the appropriate social and emotional skills that my child should be demonstrating?
- What emotional or behavioral changes can I look forward to as my child grows?
- Are there any important behaviors that I should let you know about?
Finally, Mackrain reminds parents not to ignore their own mental health needs.
“Share how you’re feeling as a parent,” she says. “For example, it’s ok to say to your child’s pediatrician, ‘I’m having trouble sleeping, and I’m not as happy as I thought I would be. Can we talk about this? I want to be sure I’m healthy for me and my baby.’”
Want more information about mental health in the early and adolescent years? Join SAMHSA on May 4 for Mental Health Awareness Day events, which will feature Olympic champion swimmers Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt, who have both been open about their own mental health struggles.