Converse with any parent or read posts on parenting forums, and you will find that all parents have a unanimous goal – “to raise a happy and healthy child”! But, I have often reflected on this to comprehend what we really imply when we use the term “happy child”. Through discussions with fellow parents I realized that quite a significant number of us interpret a “happy child” to be one who is not a “cry baby” and who, for the most part, is cheerful, smiling whatever be the situation. However, is that a reasonable, realistic and healthy expectation? While it may break our heart or at times exasperate us to see our children cry, sulk or express anger, fact of the matter is that life is about experiencing the varied emotions it is speckled with. I personally believe that more than a happy child, it is important to raise a mentally healthy child – one who faces all kinds of feelings head on and learns to deal with them, instead of running away from the inner turmoil; one who acknowledges that life is not always happy-happy or hunky dory, and that it is fine to feel sad and low in spirits some times. I am guilty of having used the phrase “cry baby” in the past but I am glad I have come to recognize that we need to stop mocking someone who cries more than the “standards” defined by us. It is uncalled for and can actually lead to suppressing of emotions by the child leading to pretense to avoid being teased or ridiculed.
When we talk about or think in relation to our child’s health, we tend to largely concentrate on the physical health of the child. But then, what about the nutrition of the mind and soul? Somewhere, starting from the milestone madness to the rat race as the kids grow, are we unconsciously missing out on focusing on our child’s mental health? This happens all the more in a country like ours where we are still quite nascent in our knowledge of mental health and the importance that we lay on it; where the grim state of affairs in this area is evident by way of our acceptance of mental health issues. People suffering from depression or other mental issues are ostracized or looked down upon. Anyone visiting a counselor or seeking professional treatment is labelled as “mad” due to which many cases are left untreated for the fear of social stigma. This is a dangerous situation to be in as it can lead to suicides and a numerous other grave crimes. Depression, the most prevailing form of mental illness, is estimated to exist in 3 of every 100 in urban areas like Mumbai. As per WHO statistics, the average suicide rate in India is 10.9 for every 100,000 people. While the absence of open dialogue around mental health is a key hurdle, experts say this also adds to the problem of less resources and doctors available in this domain.
Mental health of the child is as important as physical health, if not more, because it determines how a child behaves and acts through the journey of life. Mental fitness includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It helps establish how we cope with stress and adversity, handle success, connect to others, and make choices. Right from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, mental health is crucial in every stage of life. It is essential to raise awareness, not just about mental health issues, but also about what we can do as parents to build the right foundation. This is certainly not easy as brain is a complex organ influenced by several external factors. But, there are multiple ways by which we can help our kids in growing to become mentally healthy individuals.
Let your children be – A cliched advice in today’s world but it really is imperative that we let our kids be. By all means, we must encourage them to give their best and facilitate in tapping their potential without putting pressure. However, there is a thin line which when crossed can make us go from being encouraging to being pushy. The trick is to be perceptive to their stress levels. If you can sense they are not enjoying it, please stop pushing.
Set an example for healthy competition – We often talk about healthy competition and expect our kids to be sporting in situations wherein they lose. But are we demonstrating such behavior too? Are we handling a win or a loss in the right spirit, or are we behaving like sore losers or being boastful and arrogant about ours/our kids’ achievements? Please introspect and set the right example.
Teach them to contribute to community – It is of paramount importance to teach our kids to be grateful, not just for what they have been blessed with, but also to other people who have a positive influence on their lives in any way. This will instill in them a sense of belonging to the world around and helping others will come naturally to them. Also, instead of preaching that they should help, because it comes back, tell them to lend a hand anyway. They should learn to treat everyone with respect and sensitivity, irrespective of whether those people can be of any assistance to them or not.
Make them understand that we are all special – We are all unique and special in our own ways, so please steer clear of “If he/she can, why can’t you?” scenarios. It is plain unfair and unwarranted!
Encourage them to take up a sport – Focus on physical fitness right from the beginning, as physical health ultimately does exert influence on the mind. Motivate them to indulge in any sport they love. There is ample research to prove the benefits from sports and how they can improve overall health.
Teach them to appreciate the good in others – If our kids notice us appreciating the good in others, there are high chances that they will pick up this trait from us. Keep discussing with them every now and then about their observation of people and things. Perception of various aspects of this world is a key characteristic of a human being. There is inspiration all around – inspire them to get inspired!
It is essential to keep evolving – Children should realize that it is vital to keep evolving to become better than their own previous selves, rather than worrying about being better than others. They need to understand that someone else “not doing well” will not make them superior, so it is pointless to have anyone else as a frame of reference. We need to be the guiding light which helps them look within to identify their own strengths and weaknesses.
Life is a sea of emotions – While it is great if our children learn to find happiness in small things, they also need to accept that it’s fine to cry or feel jealous and upset at times. These and a lot more emotions are all human, and there is nothing shameful or bad about experiencing them. What defines us is how we react to these emotions and tackle them.
Egg them on to pursue their hobbies – Pursuing a hobby can contribute enormously in making a person mentally and emotionally strong. Not only does it give immense happiness but it is a great outlet to vent while being confronted with unconstructive feelings of any kind. For example, I love dancing and it helps me to a great extent in managing distress or anger. Support your children as they follow their passions.
Acknowledge their individuality –While it is hard to stop thinking of our children as our extensions, we have to accept that they are individuals with a mind of their own. The earlier we do that, the better it is for them. We can be their guide and facilitator, and can watch their back, but we must abstain from controlling their lives in any way. This also helps in building a healthy parent-child relationship which again directly affects their mental health in the long run.
Teach them to let go and forgive, but also to stand up for themselves – Forgiving is an act which benefits us more than the ones we forgive. It gives us mental peace and aids us in moving ahead. This is something we can start teaching our children early on. At the same time, we also need to teach them to stand up for themselves. This judgement of when to let go and when to stick their ground will come to them with time and experience, but we can surely keep talking to them about it.
Self-love is very important – I cannot stress enough on the significance of urging children to love, respect and embrace their own selves. This is something my own mother did for us and I am indebted to her for that. Self-love and self-acceptance are instrumental in driving happiness intrinsically and also ensure you don’t get affected when someone tries to put you down.
You may not always get the stars and the moon, my child – As parents, our love for our children makes us wish they get everything they want in life. But, we know that practically speaking, they cannot get everything. Teach them right from the beginning that one cannot have it all in life, especially at the same time. A major cause of people getting stressed is their desire for more. This also makes it tough for them to take decisions at crucial junctures because they tend to fancy having it all and choosing becomes difficult for them. Our children need to learn to prioritize. This is what always helps me to stand by my decisions, be it quitting my corporate job or those affecting my personal relationships.
Do not try to change their core nature – Just like we all have our distinctive personalities, children have theirs too. An extrovert child or naughty child is not better than an introvert child. We do not need to make our kids “social” or “naughty” or “talkative” or whatever else we feel is preferable. Do not coax them into being someone they are not and are not comfortable being. As long as they are connecting to the people and world in their own way, it is all good.
It is OK to have fears – Do not feel vexed about them getting over their fears. It could be any kind of fear – stage fright or fear of a particular animal or sound et al. Give them opportunities to get over the fears and be there for them, but don’t get aggressive or forceful.
Apologizing doesn’t make anyone small – According to me, ego is a huge hindrance to mental peace. It can destroy you without even giving you an inkling of it. Teaching our kids the virtue of apologizing is necessary. They need to be taught that it is absolutely fine to own up to one’s mistakes and apologize, instead of getting defensive. They need to know that in no way does this reduce their self-worth.
It’s OK to say ‘No’ – This is something I learned much later in life the hard way. As parents, we should avoid making our children do things they aren’t comfortable with, just to please someone. If they can learn to say ‘No’ early on without feeling guilty, it will help them a great deal throughout life in various situations. This does not mean that they shouldn’t do anything to make others happy. It’s just that it should not be at the cost of encumbering themselves with unwanted baggage.
Rejection is a part of life – Just like it is OK for them to say ‘No’, it is so important for them to understand that being refused for something is equally all right. Not everyone will love them or help them so they need to learn to respect other person’s opinion/sentiments and move on.
Keep the communication channels open – It’s your choice to be a lenient parent or not based on your parenting philosophy, but either way please ensure you keep the communication channels open with your children. Unless your children are comfortable sharing their feelings and thoughts with you, you will not be able to support them as needed. Parents need to get a peek into the little minds to be able to lead them on the right path.
It’s not the end of the world – It is extremely challenging to deal with catastrophes in life. Be it the death of a dear one or a huge financial loss, it can shake our very existence. If we can prepare our children for such circumstances, they will be able to sail through them with maturity. A friend of mine once advised her son to grieve and take his own time to heal after her husband’s death. Her love, comforting words and rational, coherent advice helped her son come out of it eventually with an optimistic approach.
Happy and positive atmosphere at home – Needless to say that the atmosphere and environment during a child’s rearing play a major role in his/her personality development. As per research, this is a prime factor that can affect the mental health of a child. So, we need to watch our dynamics as a family unit and be loving, civil, cheerful and positive ourselves to provide a positive upbringing to our children. This doesn’t mean we never argue in front of them but we need to do so respectfully. This also doesn’t mean we never cry in front of them because strength is not in “not crying” but it is in picking up the pieces and moving forward.
Relax enough – While this may sound like an inane point, but there is evidence that lack of rest and sleep can actually affect mental well-being. We often tend to link relaxation to laziness and also glorify those who slog it out, and then end up comparing. We should refrain from doing so and instead encourage kids to be active and relax/sleep following their body’s cues.
Get professional help at the right time – Do NOT hesitate to get professional help before it’s too late, if you have any concerns about your child’s mental health. Yes it’s still a taboo but who cares? Your child comes first, isn’t it?
Parenting is so much more intuitive than a calculated effort that following all of the above to the hilt is easier said than done. But, once we are convinced about things we should or should not do, we can strive to be the parent we have imagined ourselves to be. It is a continuous learning process and I am confident that together we can raise a mentally stronger and healthier generation. So, next time when we think about our child’s health, let us make it a point to not restrict our thoughts to just their iron and vitamin levels!