According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), mental health issues including, but not limited to, anxiety, depression, social anxiety disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and related psychological illnesses may have foundations in the childhood years. Yet, official diagnoses of mental health challenges cannot take place in early childhood. Statistics have shown that over 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18 have some form of stress-induced anxiety disorder and are more likely to perform poorly in school or avoid essential social interactions that will contribute to their development.
Stress plays a unique role in the life of every child, and as a result, the life of each of us who care for little ones, whether through our role as a parent, teacher, babysitter, etc. Mental health awareness during the childhood years is a public health concern that we all need to be aware of in order to begin the process of meaningful education and subsequent management.
The mental health and wellbeing of children growing up in contemporary society is decreasing at an alarming rate as they deal with environmental stressors that did not exist when we were young, yet they are often not well equipped to identify, cope with, and overcome those stressors, and neither are we when it comes to supporting and educating them. When children are not taught health responses to triggers, they are more likely to experience setbacks in their psychological and emotional development, which may lead to more severe mental health issues and diagnoses of challenges in later life.
While an increasing number of adults are becoming committed to demonstrating a response to minimizing the stigma of stress management and mental health awareness in childhood, there is a need for this paradigm shift to continue and to become more widespread in order for the mental health needs of our future generations to no longer go unaddressed.
So, how can we help?
A child’s relationship with the adults in their life, whether positive or negative, directly contributes to their overall wellness. Support from adults is necessary in order to ensure that our children grow and develop socially and emotionally. The incorporation of stress management education and awareness during the childhood years in one (or more!) of the following ways will prove beneficial for the overall emotional wellness of the child (or children) in your life:
Normalize stress. Perhaps the easiest, and most meaningful way to incorporate mental health support for children is to normalize stress as being a part of every day life. Being taught that it is normal to talk about feelings, to use words instead of actions when feeling anxious, and to feel comfortable when turning to an authority figure for help instills feelings of normalcy for the practice. Children’s behavior and performance, both at home and at school, is often affected by the stress level they are experiencing, so learning appropriate response techniques will help them to thrive.
Be open about your own mental health needs. Adults who demonstrate higher aptitude in identifying, coping with, and overcoming their own stressors are more likely to help raise children who are less stressed. Children who come from family backgrounds in which positive stress management is demonstrated are often able to respond to their own stressors in healthy ways without the need for additional interventions.
The antiquated belief of hiding our needs from the children in our lives no longer holds true – when we practice authenticity in our own presentation of mental health struggles and appropriate responses, the children in our lives will learn to mirror our healthy behaviors, knowing that setbacks will happen but can be overcome with a sense of resilience and knowledge.
Practice yoga together. Calming practices like yoga encourage soothing physical responses to stress including deep breathing and stillness, which a child can easily access in any setting when they find themselves feeling stressed. Developing a regular yoga practice gives children (and adults) the ability to turn inward and manage stressors from a place of internal quiet and calm.
Additionally, yoga has the ability to increase a child’s sense of self-confidence and overall health and wellbeing, which can decrease negative responses to future stressors and help them find self-sufficiency in other areas of their life.
Encourage mindfulness or meditation. Children who are encouraged to practice mindfulness or meditation are less likely to report negative or harmful thoughts about themselves or others. Mindfulness has also been credited with helping children to balance their emotional state and regulate their responses to stressors.
When children learn that it is not only acceptable but important to take silent time for themselves, they begin to understand who they are as an individual with unique needs, and start to develop ideas and beliefs about the ways through which they can help themselves to feel supported and peaceful.
Get involved. Many schools and communities offer stress management based programs for families aimed at increasing childhood health and wellness. When families involve themselves in these types of outreach initiatives, there are many positive benefits for children, since they can actively see that the people who love and take care of them are able to help them identify and manage their stressors in healthy ways that are sustainable long-term.
Seek out opportunities that fit into your own routine that will allow you to learn more about childhood mental health needs and become an advocate for the children in your life!