Note from Daniel: This is a guest post by John Lim.
When I was 2, my sister was born.
I reacted to her birth by hiding in my toy car the whole night and refusing to come out.
Because I was jealous of all the attention that my sister was getting. I felt sad that no one seemed to care about me.
It doesn’t matter if your child is 2 or 22 – it can sometimes be hard for him to express how he feels.
As a parent, this can be challenging and frustrating for you.
After all, how can you support your child’s mental health if he doesn’t talk about how he feels?
Mental health isn’t just about psychological and emotional problems. It’s also about psychological and emotional well-being.
So in this article, we’ll focus on the positive aspects of your child’s mental health – resilience, optimism, and well-being.
Here are 7 tips that I trust you’ll find useful.
1. Understand the signs that your child is struggling.
Train yourself to be attuned to your child’s emotional needs.
Every child exhibits different signs when they’re struggling. For example, when I struggled emotionally as a child, I became quiet. I wouldn’t say a word to anyone about my problems.
Over time, my parents noticed that whenever I was quiet, something was probably wrong.
They would then give me the space I needed to work through the problem.
Knowing what signs your child exhibits when she’s going through a hard time is a good way to understand her better.
Here are some of the common signs:
- Your child isn’t as talkative as she used to be.
- Your child is more withdrawn.
- Your child doesn’t want to spend time with her friends.
- Your child frequently says that he or she hates school.
- Your child isn’t excited by the things that used to bring her joy, e.g. games, sports, music, art, reading, family outings.
- Your child’s mood fluctuates. One moment, she might be angry or explosive, then a short while later she might be sad or distressed.
- Your child is hyperactive and has trouble focusing on any given task (which are signs of ADHD).
To understand your child better, ask yourself these questions:
- When was the last time she struggled psychologically and emotionally?
- How did she behave during that period of time?
- What did I do that helped the situation?
- How did she respond to my help?
2. Spend quality time with your child.
There are no shortcuts. If you want to understand your child, you need to spend time with him.
In Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slow, he talks about how his life was transformed one night when he was reading bedtime stories to his child.
The title of the book was One-Minute Bedtime Stories.
He realised that in his pursuit of being more productive and getting more done, he had treated time with his child as just another task he had to complete.
Hence the bedtime stories that each took only one minute to read.
Like most parents, you’re probably really busy. But ask yourself this question: “Why am I so busy?”
Yes, you’re busy working hard to provide for your family. But if you can’t spend any quality time with your child, is there a point to your busyness?
I encourage you to organise an outing with your child. Go for a hike or have a meal. Play a board game.
The point is to be intentional about it.
Here are some tips that you might find helpful:
- Schedule in regular family meals.
Be serious about having meals together as a family. If you don’t put it in your calendar, it’s probably not going to happen.
Treat family mealtimes as sacred. Don’t let anything get in the way of you being present for these meals.
- Set fixed boundaries related to work and family.
Have you ever checked the time at work and thought to yourself: “It’s 6 p.m. already?! I haven’t got enough work done for the day!”
At these moments, you have a choice.
You can carry on with your work, or you can shut down your computer and go home to be with your family.
Being with your family means being physically and emotionally present.
After all, work is infinite – there’s always more work you could do, no matter how much work you do today.
On the other hand, time is finite. If you don’t make time to spend with your children now, before you know it they’ll be all grown up.
- Put your phone away.
When I’m out with my family for dinner, I leave my phone at home. That’s because I want to give them the attention they deserve.
You might think that leaving your phone at home sounds extreme. But I encourage you to give it a try – you might just decide that you’ll make it a habit.
And when you’re with your children, put your phone on airplane mode. This way, you won’t get distracted by messages, calls or notifications.
At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself: “How important are my children to me?”
If they’re important to you, make time to build a stronger relationship with them.
3. Be with your child; don’t do for your child.
Your child may be your child.
But she’s also growing up. She’s figuring out how to do things on her own. She’s gaining a sense of independence and autonomy.
If your child is going through a rough time, it might be tempting for you to jump in and fix the problem.
But this won’t be beneficial for your child’s mental health in the long run.
Mental health is like a muscle that’s built over time. Helping your child today won’t always help your child tomorrow.
Instead, let her try to resolve the problem herself. This will help her grow in her ability to bounce back from setbacks.
For example, if your child fails a test, don’t ask the teacher why his grading was so strict.
Instead, ask your child what she learned from the experience, and understand her feelings about the situation. Help her to decide what she can do differently next time.
In general, before taking any action, talk to your child and understand her perspective on the situation. Tell her that you’re there for her.
It’s vital that you show her that you’ll give her all the support she needs.
But it’s even more vital that you stop yourself from fixing the problem for her.
4. Model for your child emotional first aid
When you fall down and get a cut, you put on a bandage.
When you suffer a cut emotionally, do you have the emotional equivalent of a bandage?
Your child suffers emotional cuts when…
- He fails an exam he studied hard for.
- He gets betrayed by his friends.
- He doesn’t make it to the basketball team because he isn’t good enough.
- He gets scolded harshly by his teacher in front of the whole class.
Clinical psychologist Guy Winch coined the term “emotional first aid”.
He notes that “whilst every household has a medicine cabinet full of bandages, ointments and pain relievers for treating basic physical maladies, we have no such medicine cabinet for the minor psychological injuries we sustain in daily life”.
You can enable your child to build an emotional first-aid kit to help himself when things go wrong.
You can also teach him strategies for self-care on days when nothing seems to be going his way.
Here are some tips that I recommend:
- Encourage your child to talk to someone when he’s going through a tough time.
- Ask him to write a letter of love to himself. This letter will celebrate his positive qualities and traits.
- Encourage him to draw or sketch something.
- If he likes writing, give him a diary so he can record his thoughts and feelings.
- Encourage him to spend some time in nature.
More importantly, model emotional first aid for your child.
Over dinner, you might share with him about the hard day you had at work and how you felt.
Don’t just talk about what you did to work through the challenges; talk about how you felt too. This will expand your child’s capacity to empathise and to label his own emotions.
You can also adopt healthy habits like regular exercise, getting enough sleep, reading for leisure, etc. to show your child how you improve your own mental well-being.
5. Share your emotions with your child.
To improve your child’s emotional well-being, she needs to be able to identify the emotions that she feels.
This means it’s crucial that – in your family – you go beyond only saying that you feel bad or okay or good.
Increasing the range of vocabulary your child uses to describe her emotions will enable her to better express her feelings.
How can you help your child to increase her range of emotional vocabulary?
I recommend playing a game called “Feelings Scrabble”.
Here’s how the game works.
First, ask your child to say any word that’s related to an emotion. Ask her to explain what the word means, and to share an example of a time when she felt that way.
For example, she might say, “Sad.” Then, you can ask her to share what “sad” means to her and talk about an incident where she felt sad.
Next, it’s your turn to do the same thing. Try using less common words like “shame”, “amusement”, “desperate”, “horrified”, “disturbed”, etc.
In addition, you can increase your child’s emotional vocabulary by talking about your day and how you felt at various points during the day.
I’m not saying that you should be talking about your feelings all the time. But it’s important to show your child that it’s okay to talk about her feelings, and that sometimes it’s okay to not be okay.
What’s not okay is bottling up everything inside you, pretending that everything is fine.
6. Thank your child.
My mother loves to cook for the family.
When my siblings and I were younger, my mother would often write instructions about what we should do for lunch when we got back from school.
She would write a note and put it on the fridge that said something like this:
There’s fish in the container and there’s rice in the pot. Please heat up the food before eating and wash the dishes after your meal. Thanks for doing the washing and eating.
In hindsight, this sounds strange to me.
I mean… shouldn’t it have been expected that my siblings and I wash the dishes after the meal? Why should my mother have needed to thank us for doing something so basic?
But now I appreciate that my mother did this.
You might feel weird about showing appreciation toward your child. But thanking your child for the things he does shows him that you don’t take these things for granted.
It helps him to build his self-esteem and self-confidence too, so don’t shy away from frequently expressing genuine appreciation.
7. Write a letter to your child.
I didn’t do too well for the A-Levels, a major exam I took when I was 18. In fact, the grades for my four main A-Level subjects spelt BBAD.
To me, those were indeed BAD grades!
I was disappointed because I had always wanted to be a doctor. But with those grades, that dream wasn’t going to be realised.
I stopped talking to my parents for some time because I didn’t know how to answer their questions related to my plans for university.
Then one night, I saw a handwritten letter on my desk.
It was from my dad, who encouraged me not to give up. To keep trying. To know that he would always support me no matter what.
That letter meant the world to me!
Sometimes, it might be hard for you to convey your heartfelt emotions to your child face to face. You can try writing a letter to her instead.
Be honest about your feelings regarding what she’s going through. Empathise with her. Let her know that you’ll always be there for her.
Most importantly, celebrate her admirable qualities – not her achievements, but her qualities.
Let her know how much she means to you. Tell her why she’s unique and special.
Celebrate her for who she is, not who you want her to be.
For example, you might write:
[State your observation]
Lately, I’ve noticed that you seem quieter than usual. You’ve been coming home later, and your teacher has also told me that you’ve been skipping classes.
[Share how you feel]
I’m worried for you because I don’t know what might happen to you when you stay out so late. I’m also afraid that you might end up being expelled from school.
[Talk about why you’re writing the letter]
I might not fully understand how you feel. But I want you to know that I’m here for you. I also want to use this opportunity to celebrate your qualities, and to tell you how much I love you.
[Celebrate your child’s qualities]
Jane, I admire how you’re so compassionate. It inspires me to see you volunteering to help people with intellectual disabilities. You’ve helped so many of them to lead richer and more fulfilling lives.
I also admire how sacrificial you are when it comes to how you spend your time and what you’re willing to do for your friends and family.
Your heart of service and love is something that stirs me to lead a life that’s focused on the needs of others.
[End by sharing that you’re there for your child]
I love you deeply. You’re my precious daughter, and you’ve always mattered so much to me. If there’s anything I can do to support you better, please let me know.
You might not notice an immediate change in your child after you give her this letter.
That’s okay. Don’t expect things to change right away.
But at least your child knows that you’re there for her, and that your love for her is unconditional.
And, for now, that’s enough.
Supporting your child’s mental health isn’t only about focusing on the “problematic” aspects like anxiety, fear, and depression.
It’s also about fostering positive aspects like resilience, optimism, and well-being.
It’s vital that you remind yourself of this truth, as stated by Robert Moorehead: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
Your child is a gift. A blessing. Someone who – despite the challenges along the parenting journey – takes your breath away.
Remember those moments when you laughed or cried together?
Be with your child. Listen to him. Connect with him.
After all, to support your child’s mental health, it’s connection that matters most.
So invest the time to build and strengthen that connection today!
John Lim is a social worker in Singapore. He was nominated as the Student Social Worker of the Year while he was studying in England. He loves working with young people to help them understand their emotions better. He writes regularly about mental health issues here.