May 7th is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day to focus specifically on the mental health needs of children. While one day is important, children’s mental health awareness, acceptance and care is a year-round experience for millions of families and caregivers. One of the most effective ways parents can support their children’s mental health is by modeling coping skills, stress management and mental health awareness.
As parents and caregivers, we know we’re role models. We also know we shoulder a ton of responsibilities and stress is something we face every single day. When my daughter was a toddler, I asked her to put away her dish in the kitchen. She continued playing, put her tiny finger in the air and said, “In a minute. I’m busy.” When I laughed and said “What?” she yelled, “In a minute! I’m busy!” Needless to say, she didn’t learn that response from The Princess and the Frog. Fast forward about 10 years and my teenage daughter now gets a gold medal in eye rolling, stomping upstairs and slamming doors. Yes, she learned that from me as well. No, I’m not always the best role model but overall, I think I’m doing pretty good as the mom of 3 teenagers.
While I’m not perfect, I do make an honest effort to model coping skills, stress management and mental health awareness for my children. Here are some highly effective ways of modeling resilience and mental health appreciation for your children.
Say it: Make it okay to say out loud how you’re feeling. For example, tell your children when you’re feeling stressed. When my children were younger, I would say things like, “Mommy has a big project at work this week. I’m nervous about how it’s going to go.” That prompt would often lead to conversations about what it physically feels like to be nervous (upset stomach, shaky, etc.) and some things they’re nervous about. Now that my kids are older, I add more specifics on what I’m doing, how I’m feeling and even how they can help. I say things like, “I’m juggling several things over the next week. I have a consulting project presentation and two investor presentations. I’m feeling really stressed about getting the slides done and I’m nervous about what the investors will think. You can help me by taking out the dog and cleaning up the kitchen without me having to tell you 23 times.”
Show self-care: I’ve been practicing self care long before self care became sexy. Self care is not selfish and it isn’t necessarily a weekly spa day (although you do you). Self care can mean going for a walk, journaling, a favorite hobby or blowing bubbles during your lunch hour. For me, self care is exercise. I’ve always shared with my kids that exercise is critical to my physical and mental health. When my kids were little, I would wake up to get in 30 minutes of exercise before they woke up. As they got older, exercise became part of family time. We would ride bikes, go snow skiing and even do 5k races together. As teenagers, I now exercise while they’re getting ready for school. If I skip a few days, I often articulate how not exercising affects my mental health (anxious, hard to focus, sluggish brain, etc).
Apologize: I already confessed that I’m not perfect so being able to apologize is important. Some parents may feel like apologizing to their children is a sign of weakness. I’m far from that mindset. With little kids, my apologies were framed as, “Mommy got angry and yelled at everyone. I’m sorry.” As they got older, I added more about how I was feeling and how I should have handled the situation. “I’m sorry I got so angry and yelled about the dishes. Seeing dishes stacked in the sink for days makes me feel unappreciated and disrespected. Next time, I will specifically ask you to load the dishwasher rather than not saying anything and hoping you’ll notice.” While my teenagers would never admit it, I know I win lots of respect points by apologizing for my screw ups.
Modeling effective coping skills, stress management and mental health awareness gives children the right words and tools to face their own challenges. It also gives us as parents a bit of grace when we inevitably screw up and opens the door for us to share how we should have handled challenging situations more effectively.
Dr. Crystal Morrison is co-founder and CEO of Meerkat Village, a tech company dedicated to building collaboration and communication among adults supporting children with special needs. She can be reached at email@example.com and make sure to check out what she’s up too.