Children’s behavior can seem disordered when it’s really normal. To find the difference between normal and abnormal, a child therapist will ask: Are these behaviors normal? Could they be a response to the environment? Does this child have a true mental health condition?
Parents can help. Focus on wellness. You cannot control all of the following areas, but you may have more control than you think. Wellness supports neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to learn and make new neural connections. Give your kids the best chance to learn and grow by making sure these areas are covered.
Establish a bedtime and stick to it. A rested mind and body is a healthy mind and body. Most kids need between seven and 10 hours of sleep a night. Do your part to make sure they are getting that on average. Don’t beat yourself up if your kid doesn’t get there every night. Just make it the average and you’re doing great.
Get in five servings a day of fruit and vegetables if possible. This is an area where parents have a lot of control — use it! Limit the sugary drinks. It is not a bad idea to get rid of them entirely.
Make sure children get in at least one hour a day. Exercise has the same benefits for children as it does for adults: increased blood and oxygen flow through the body, a clearer mind, and the releasing of “good feeling” chemicals in the brain.
Learning new skills such as playing an instrument or practicing a sport makes new neural connections and contributes to overall health. Careful not to overdo this one, though; just one new skill at a time is plenty. Try to find something in which they’re interested.
Our entire lives are surrounded by a social context. Support the positive relationships in your child’s life and help them develop new ones. Get them involved in an activity that supports this: team sports, Boy or Girl Scouts, church groups, or band, to name a few. There are plenty of activities that combine a lot of these wellness points. Team sports, band, Boy or Girl Scouts, and many other activities involve exercise, learning new skills, and building relationships. Find something your kid enjoys and get them involved.
Even when you think they aren’t, kids are watching. Does your child have anger issues? Take a look in the mirror. How do you handle anger? Does your son treat women disrespectfully? Dad, what language do you use around Mom?
Your kids are sponges, even the babies. Children hear what you say, and feel your emotions. A baby cannot understand the language you use, but they can tell when you’re angry and have lost control.
Although they aren’t aware of it, kids need rules. It helps them feel safe. Remember that survival is one of the basic human needs. Kids who are misbehaving many times are reacting to a need they don’t know they have. They are scared. Rules and boundaries help to make kids feel secure.
Be fair, be consistent, be on the same page as your spouse, and be loving. They may say “I hate you,” “this is stupid,” or “I don’t need rules,” but they do. Stay strong and they will be better for it in the end.
Your children will always love and need you. I have seen children who were beaten, mistreated emotionally, and abandoned wail and cry for Mom and Dad after being placed in a loving foster home. Your kids need your attention constantly, your love unconditionally, your acceptance readily, your forgiveness freely, your protection fiercely, your hand gently, and your heart completely. Don’t ever hold back. Love your kids.
Children’s mental health is a minefield of questions that many times have no answers. If your child is facing mental health challenges, they need you more than ever. Be involved, be informed, and be proactive. You make more of a difference than you realize.
Therapy session photo available from Shutterstock