“Hand out the multivitamins. Kiss those scraped knees. But don’t forget your child’s mental health.”
Our nine-year-old son would not swallow his dinner. He cried, coughed, and then ran to the bathroom to spit it out. It wasn’t my cooking—not this time anyway. It was anxiety. He had learned choking safety tips at school that day, and for the rest of the week he was consumed by the fear of choking. It startled us because we weren’t dealing with the typical childhood fever or scraped knee. We were trying to comfort a child whose mind was not OK.
As parents we strive to keep our children healthy. We watch what they eat, who they play with, and worry about their physical safety. However, a growing health issue that often goes undetected is their mental health.
According to Children’s Mental Health Ontario, as many as one in five children will experience some form of a mental health problem. Another shocking fact is that Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world. Child and youth emergency department and hospital visits for mental disorders have risen by 54 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively, over the last decade, and these statistics continue to rise.1 As a mom of five children, these statistics are a serious wake-up call to focus on raising mentally resilient children.
Several years ago I survived a very serious mental breakdown and I was afraid, at first, that my past had influenced my son’s sudden mental battle. Then I realized that having walked through my own mental health crisis, I could use what I’ve learned. It never used to be, but my children’s mental health is now a high priority for me. Here are five things I believe we can do to build mental resilience in our children:
1. Let our children struggle.
Our attempts to shield our children from struggle can actually weaken their mental flexibility. Research has shown that helicopter parenting—hovering over every aspect of a child’s life to protect them from any struggle—can “… erode a child’s ability to succeed on their own, and potentially even increase anxiety.”2 It’s hard for loving parents to watch children struggle or fail and not intervene. But it’s harder to watch them battle mental health issues as adults. People with resilient minds have struggled to overcome hardships.
2. Give your children practical tools.
I grabbed a lanyard name tag holder and an index card and sat down with my nine-year-old son to teach him about emergency cue cards. It’s a tool I used when I was experiencing an intense panic attack. I took an index card and wrote down promises from Scripture, things I was grateful for, and encouraging words. In the midst of an anxiety attack, I would pull out my card and focus on those words.
My son and I wrote out his card, and I tucked it into the name tag holder. I told him to read his card over and over again whenever he had a panic attack over choking. It worked! He had a plan, practical and tangible action he could take to confront his phobia with the truth and help to ease his fear.
As parents we often tell our children, “You’ll be fine” or “There’s nothing to worry about.” These statements may give ussome peace in the moment, but they don’t teach our children how to handle anxiety. Don’t minimize their fears because they are childish. Give them the tools to face their fears head-on. People with resilient minds have the tools they need.
3. How you speak to your children is how they will reason in their mind.
We influence our children’s thoughts by the words we speak to them. Our voice often becomes their inner dialogue, and we know that negative chatter in the mind can lead to serious mental health issues. To build resilient minds in our children, we need to teach them to respond to their successes, failures and hardship with self-love and kindness. We do that by showing them unconditional love and by avoiding self-destructive words they might internalize. People with resilient minds are kind to themselves.
4. Let go of religious parenting.
Hard-line rules and unrealistic religious standards can be toxic to a young child’s peace of mind. When a home is ruled by a rigid list of dos and don’ts, it becomes a place of chronic disappointment versus a safe place to fail, grow and practise grace. It teaches our children a very dangerous mindset: I’m not good enough. They may spend a lifetime trying to achieve approval from man and from God.
Children thrive with routine, boundaries and discipline; these make our children feel loved and safe. But when the rules begin to stifle a child’s spirit, we need to put our home back under the grace of Jesus and let go a little. People with resilient minds understand God’s grace.
5. Protect your children from the glamour of anxiety and depression.
I am a strong advocate for mental health awareness, especially within the family of God. According to Children’s Mental Health Ontario, 63 per cent of youth say that the fear of being stigmatized would stop them from seeking help for mental health issues.3 Our children need a safe place to share their darkest thoughts.
With all that said, I strongly believe that mental instability has become glamorized and celebrated in our culture. Our children can be lured into being dark and mysterious. It’s common for youth to opt out of situations because of mental health problems or to receive a lot of attention online for their suicidal poetry. Darkness feeds on darkness, and a vulnerable mind can be susceptible to the glamour of being a “tormented spirit.” We need to guard our children from external influences that elevate mental illness over the pursuit of wholeness through Jesus. People with resilient minds pursue wholeness.
Hand out the multivitamins. Kiss those scraped knees. But don’t forget your child’s mental health. Let’s pay close attention to raising mentally resilient children— equipped, loved, and ready to conquer their future!
Sarah E. Ball is a mom with five children, a speaker, blogger, and the author of Fearless in 21 Days: A Survivor’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. You can follow her writing at saraheball.com.
- “Key Facts & Data Points,” Children’s Mental Health Ontario, accessed February 8, 2018, https://www.cmho.org/education-resources/facts-figures.
- Joel L. Young, “The Effects of ‘Helicopter Parenting,’ ” Psychology Today, January 25, 2017, accessed February 8, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/when-your-adult-child-breaks-your-heart/201701/the-effects-helicopter-parenting.
- “Key Facts & Data Points,” Children’s Mental Health Ontario.
This article appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.