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A Guide to Parenting a Child With Poor Mental Health

Few parents would disagree with the importance of taking care of their child’s physical health. A child’s mental health is just as important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, states that 20% of all children suffer from a mental issue each year. Some of the mental health issues are preventable. Parents must be proactive about protecting their child’s mental health and teaching them good mental health habits. However, not all issues are preventable. Parenting a child with a mental health disorder is not uncommon and yet can feel so isolating. These parents are not alone.

What is Mental Health?

Children’s mental health is defined as hitting age-appropriate emotional and mental developmental milestones while also learning coping and social skills and knowing how to use them. Mentally well kids can function well in their community, at school, and at home. Mental issues in children are defined as alterations in the way a child behaves, learns, or deals with their emotions. These changes cause the child problems in functioning during their day. At some point, all children will be worried or display unusual behavior. If these disruptions start emerging as a pattern it’s important to take the child to the doctor for evaluation.

How Many Children Suffer With Poor Mental Health?

Mental health problems strike children from every economic class, racial background, family makeup, and religious background. Around 20% of all children have some sort of mental health-related issue each year. The most commonly diagnosed issues in children are ADHD, which affects about 10% of all kids; anxiety, which around 9% are diagnosed with; behavior problems, which almost 9% of kids get diagnosed with; depression, which over 4% of children are diagnosed with. It’s estimated that these issues cost families and society about $250 billion each year.

Parenting tips: 1. Talk to your child as often as possible; 2. Let them know that they are special and important to you; 3. Play games with them; 4. Take them outside on sunny days; 5. Read to them every night before bedtime

Taking Care of Your Mental Health First

Kids model so much of their behavior off of their parents. They watch as parents go through stressful situations or deal with upset. Parents with untreated mental illness are more likely to raise kids with mental health issues. It’s more difficult to parent well when dealing with untreated mental health problems and it’s also difficult to maintain a consistent family life and routine. Parents who take care of their mental health are taking care of their entire family.

Build Trust

Children with solid relationships with their parents are typically more mentally sound than children who don’t have a strong relationship with their primary caregiver. The building block of any relationship is trust. Trust between parent and child means creating feelings of security and safety. Children need to know that their parents will meet their needs, both physical and emotional. They also need to know that parents’ words have meaning. Don’t make promises that can’t be fulfilled.

Be Consistent

All children need and want structure and predictability in their lives. They need to know what consequences to expect if rules are broken, how the day will go, and that their caregivers will meet their needs. Every family experiences disruptions like moves, new siblings, or divorces. These changes often impact kids, causing them to withdraw and start expressing symptoms of anxiety. Temper tantrums aren’t uncommon. The most important thing parents can do is continue to be consistent and provide structure. Maintain a daily routine, let kids know what is going on each week, and make sure to schedule weekly family fun times.

Open Communication

Open communication between parents and children helps kids deal with everyday emotional stressors and upsets. One study suggests that kids who didn’t have open communication with their primary caregiver were more likely to express anxiety, have poor social skills, and suffer from depression. Children who don’t talk with their parents are more likely to internalize their problems instead of asking for help or advice. This is even more true as children age. So ask questions, spend time with kids, and be available for them.

Teach Stress Management to Your Kids

No parent can protect their child from every emotional upset or moment of stress. Learning how to cope with stress is a vital lesson for kids to learn. All kids are going to struggle with school at some point or have a fight with a friend. Learning how to cope with the stress in the moment, and then recover from it sets kids up to be mentally healthy adults. Let kids decide how much they want to share about their stress, though. For some kids talking about it too much makes it worse and not better. Each kid will be different in what helps them manage stress. Some will want to talk about it, some would prefer to draw pictures to get out the feelings, and others might prefer going to socialize or go outside to relieve stress.

Develop Their Self-Esteem

Parents have two jobs when it comes to their children and their self-esteem. The first is to help kids develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. The second job is to help kids learn how to develop self-esteem on their own. One way parents do this is by providing realistic, genuine praise. Focus praise on effort and results. Give kids opportunities for age-appropriate independence. Doing things on their own helps kids build self-esteem and a sense of self-reliance. Another way to do this is when children express self-doubt, help them reframe their inner monologue by focusing on what they need to do to learn the skill or to think about the time they did learn how to do difficult tasks.

Play Together

Everyone, both child and adult, needs playtime. Time spent together is important for all relationships! Playtime brings a lot of benefits to children and their emotional, mental, and social development. One benefit is that playing with loved ones increases a child’s sense of mental well-being and decreases their feelings of anxiety and depression.

When to Get Outside Help

It’s estimated that only about 20% of kids experiencing mental health issues get the professional help they need. All kids experience emotional upsets. There are red flags parents should be aware of and if their children express them, they should reach out for professional help. A child’s pediatrician is a great starting point in finding appropriate help. Signs that help is needed include abnormal amounts of worrying, withdrawal from family and friends, radical changes in eating and sleeping patterns, sudden severe issues with school or in their social lives, hopelessness, talk or instances of self-harm, problems with impulse control, and sudden mood swings.


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