Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My kid knows their ABC's, isn't that enough?

When I first started my current position, I learned all sorts of things that benefited me personally. The most important- how to support your child's mental health. Sure, I knew early experiences lay the foundation for later development. I knew that mental health issues impacted children. But I always thought of it in extremes. Like severe traumatic experiences. Adoption/foster care. I knew of course the importance of being aware of these issues and how it impacts children.

But when it came to thinking about it in terms of my own children, I never thought of it. I never thought of the ways I could support mental health in my two, healthy, typically developing children. Thankfully, I have found out how I can support mental health in my children and I would like to share how you can as well!

What does mental health have to do with my kid?
Well, it has to do with a lot. In the simplest terms, early childhood mental health is the child's ability to identify and regulate emotions. How are they developing across all the developmental domains? (cognitive, language, gross/fine motor, social/emotional) Early childhood mental health looks at a child's ability to get along with others, problem solve, follow directions and manage BIG feelings. These stages of development apply to ALL children, not just those that have been through a traumatic event. Likewise, these skills are crucial for EVERY child to develop.

So, what can I do to support healthy mental well being in my child?
Thankfully, there is a lot that you can do, but I will just highlight a few here that I believe are most important but also, easy to apply to every day life.

 Identify feelings
 Start using feelings language early. Point out feelings your child is experiencing. Point out and identify feelings of characters in a book or TV show. Point out and identify your own feelings. Ask questions like, "How do you think he/she is feeling right now?"

Regulate your own emotions
This is admittedly, a really tough one for me. But one thing I have learned is that if we, as parents and adults can't/aren't in control of our own emotions, how can we expect our children to be able to? If we are yelling and basically having an adult tantrum when we become angry or upset- this sets an example. I have to remember this when I feel my temper rising- I have to stop, take a deep breath and sometimes even step away for a moment. If we want to teach our children to not throw tantrums, we have to make sure we are also controlling ourselves. Along with that, teaching your child alternative ways to express anger, like walking away or asking for a break, will help your child to begin to develop healthy coping skills and appropriate ways to handle frustration and other bumps in the road. I will even tell Sophia, "I am feeling frustrated right now, I need a break." *After writing this, I got frustrated with Sophia because she wasn't listening and it took FOOOREEVVVER to get the kid in the bathroom to brush her teeth- she told me, "Mommy say it in a nice way." With a pointed finger. Hmmm.. I wonder where she gets that from?!

Teach problem solving skills
When your child is calm and in a good mood- you can start having conversations about what they can do if a conflict arises. Some examples are, "If a friend takes your toy, what can you do?" Help your child come up with appropriate solutions. If a situation does arise, let things settle and then have a conversation about what happened and possible solutions they could try in the future.

Validate, validate, validate
I can't tell you how many times I have brushed Sophia's feelings away, saying, "Oh, you're fine." One simple thing I have done, even in the midst of being told, "Go away, I don't like you." is validate how she is feeling. By simply saying, "I see you're angry, that IS really frustrating." got me SO much further than when I simply punished her for taking a toy away from her sister. Think about it, when you're upset/angry/sad- sometimes the one thing that makes it all just a little better- is when someone simply acknowledges how you are feeling. When they say, I get it, I don't blame you for feeling that way. It works the same way with our kids. Another thing I say a lot is, "It's ok to be angry, it is not ok to X,Y, or Z."

Say I'm sorry
 Most of all though, if you're like me- you'll get impatient, you'll yell, you'll make mistakes. And like me, you'll feel instant guilt and regret of how you handled a situation. But you know the cool thing? We can show our kids that we aren't perfect, we make mistakes and it's ok. And that's a pretty cool lesson- to forgive and show compassion to others. We can also make it right.  Apologize to your kids. Kids are so unbelievably resilient and just when I'm sure I've messed Sophia up for good, she turns to me with those big brown eyes and declares me the best mommy ever. So, even if you do make a mistake, or 2, 3, or 4, know that a hug and an apology can and will make it better. Saying sorry also models empathy and being a good friend.

So, while teaching your kiddos the ABC's and 123's is important, don't forget about the other stuff too. Being a good friend, following directions and managing BIG feelings are also skills that need to be developed and taught.

Saidey has the "angry" face down!