Teaching Your Children to Be Mentally Healthy and Happy

 Nancy Buck

You help your kids learn the signals for when to use the bathroom, to eat and to go to bed, as well as the importance of eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise. You teach your kids to brush and floss their teeth twice a day and to see the dentist twice a year. But what are you doing to teach your children about their mental health?

You’re not alone if you’re at a loss as to how to answer questions regarding mental health. Even though this is currently a hot topic, there is very little information about what good mental health actually involves.

Not long ago physical health was solely defined as the absence of illness, but now this is understood to include promoting well-being by taking proper care of ourselves, like eating healthy food and exercising regularly. Similarly, adults and kids now have a better handle on what dental health entails. Kids learn to brush and floss in order to develop good, strong teeth and oral health.

But what of mental health? Sadly it's still defined in the antiquated way we used to think about physical health. A person is considered to be mentally healthy as long as they are not suffering from mental illness.

Doesn’t it make sense that mental health is more than just the absence of illness? If children can be taught to make good choices to improve their physical and dental health, wouldn’t you like to know what to teach your children to improve their mental health as well? It helps to start with a definition, which psychiatrist William Glasser provides in the text "Defining Mental Health as a Public Health Problem":

"A mentally healthy person is someone who enjoys being with most of the people in his life, especially the important people such as family, partners and friends. You feel happy most of the time and are willing to help unhappy family members, friends or colleagues to feel better. You lead a mostly tension-free life, laugh a lot, and rarely suffer from vague, ill-defined aches and pains. You enjoy life and have no trouble accepting other people who think and act differently from you. You rarely criticize or try to change anyone. If you have differences with someone else, you will try and work out the problem. If you can’t you will walk way before you argue and increase the difficulty. You are creative and may enjoy more of your potential than you thought possible. Even in a very difficult situation, when you are unhappy, you’ll know why you are unhappy and attempt to do something about it."

Although not a perfect definition, this provides helpful and specific instructions for you and your children to follow.

Let’s break it into four specific components:

Emotional Regulation

Infants receive strong emotional signals letting them know that all is not well in their world and their bodies. Infants cry to let parents know that they are not feeling emotionally and physically well. So when a baby cries, parents try to comfort the distressed child by feeding, swaddling, cradling and rocking him or her until the infant feels satiated, soothed and usually falls asleep.

As the infant grows and develops, most parents start to recognize different baby cries signal different kinds of distress. A hungry cry sounds different from an overtired cry, a sleepy cry or a lonely cry. Eventually children develop recognizable behaviors and language to indicate their emotional and physical needs. Parents and other caretakers start by giving the child what is needed, and eventually teach kids how to ask for what they need and how to meet their needs independently.

What's called emotional regulation refers to the process by which a person recognizes their emotional upset and can satisfy their emotional need without having to upset others. Parents who never allow kids to become self-aware of uncomfortable emotional feelings or to learn how to comfort and help themselves, instead always doing this for them, interfere with their need to learn how to regulate their own emotions.

Emotional regulation is key to good mental health and lifelong happiness.

Problem Solving and Adapting to Change

A mentally healthy person knows that he can solve his own problems. This doesn’t mean that he must solve all of his problems by himself. Part of knowing how to solve your own problems includes understanding when to ask for help, like from an expert who can teach you innovative solutions.

Part of teaching your children to develop and respect their mental health means asking your children to solve their own age-appropriate problems. A 2-year-old can look for his favorite toy that has gone missing with your help. A 7-year-old can keep track of library books she's checked out. A 14-year-old can plan her own evening that includes homework, practicing a musical instrument and a Skype call with a long-distance cousin.

Helping your children solve their own problems is one way to allow them to meet their needs for power and freedom. Along the way, you are teaching them when and how to use you as a helpful partner and later as their trusted consultant. The child is also learning that he is capable of solving his own problems. Your child grows into becoming a skilled problem solver by tackling increasingly difficult challenges.

Developing and Maintaining Loving, Respectful and Enjoyable Relationships

Usually you start teaching this lesson from the moment you first meet your children. You love and enjoy them, keeping them safe and satisfied to the best of your ability and understanding. As your children grow, they interact and develop loving relationships with an ever-widening circle of family and friends, as well as others in their community.

Even though you may not have thought about it, you are already succeeding with this vital component of mental health. You are modeling how to successfully negotiate those times when there is a difference of opinion between adults in relationships, and you are helping your children manage arguments or conflicts over taking turns with a coveted toy. Through setting an example and coaching, you’re teaching your children how to get along with others when there is a difference of opinion or a need to work things out before an argument damages an important relationship.

Meeting Psychological Needs for Safety, Power, Fun, Freedom and Love Daily

People are born with the genetic instructions to meet their psychological needs for safety, love, power, fun and freedom. Even though your children are born driven to behave to meet these needs, they are not born knowing how to do this responsibly and respectfully. A parent’s job is to teach children to meet their psychological needs in ways that don’t keep others from being able to meet their own needs. Mental health is achieved when parents and children are effectively, respectfully, appropriately and regularly meeting their needs for safety, love, power, freedom and fun.

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Category: Entertainment

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