Kids Mental Health: 5 Signs Your Kids Are In Good Shape

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Parenting expert Alyson Schafer shares five pillars for nurturing mental health in our kids. | images by Tang Ming Tung via Getty Images
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We are finally working together as a culture to lift the stigma of children’s mental health issues. Given the stats from the Canadian Mental Health Association, we can't waste more time. Check this out:

  • 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder.
  • Approximately 5 per cent of male youth and 12 per cent of female youth, age 12 to 19, have experienced a major depressive episode.
  • The total number of 12 to 19 year olds in Canada at risk for developing depression is a staggering 3.2 million.
  • Once depression is recognized, help can make a difference for 80 per cent of people who are affected, allowing them to get back to their regular activities.
  • Mental illness is increasingly threatening the lives of our children; with Canada’s youth suicide rate being the third highest in the industrialized world.
  • Suicide is among the leading causes of death in 15- to 24-year-old Canadians, second only to accidents; 4,000 people die prematurely each year by suicide.
  • Schizophrenia is youth’s greatest disabler as it strikes most often in the 16- to 30-year age group, affecting an estimated one person in 100.
  • Surpassed only by injuries, mental disorders in youth are ranked as the second highest hospital care expenditure in Canada.
  • In Canada, only one out of five children who need mental health services receives them.
"Mental illness is increasingly threatening the lives of our children; with Canada’s youth suicide rate being the third highest in the industrialized world."

These facts are alarming. Now that we are no longer sweeping this important issue under the rug, parents are asking me what they can be doing to prevent their child from developing mental health issues.

5 Signs Your Kids Are Mentally Healthy

While we can’t control all the factors that determine our children’s mental health, we sure can apply best practices to help reduce the likelihood.

Check out these five main pillars essential to good mental health to see where you are having an impact.

1. Basic safety

Imagine your child is a wee creature and you are tasked with providing the terrarium it will grow up in. The “habitat” best suited for children is one that is stable and predictable, and that provides the basic needs of safety from harm as well as food, water, shelter and green space. A child doesn’t need a palace, but neither can they thrive in violence, poverty or wondering when their next meal will be.

Is your home safe and predictable? Does your child know their needs – not wants – will be met?

2. Relationships

In the terrarium there must be other creatures because at the core, humans need to be loved and accepted. At some primal level, we know that together as a group we are better able to survive than any one of us on our own. That’s why solitary confinement is the worst punishment. That’s why Wilson, a soccer ball, became the lifesaving imaginary friend of Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away.”

We need relationships! We need good, healthy, strong, loving, respectful relationships, especially with our primary caregivers. When our relationships are good, we have the necessary social supports that weave the security blanket needed to protect our psyche from the blows of life. We may suffer a setback, but with community, we recover from our tragedies.

"When our relationships are good, we have the necessary social supports that weave the security blanket needed to protect our psyche from the blows of life."

So how is the social climate in your family? Are you yelling more than hugging? Do the siblings fight more than cooperate? Do your children feel they have your love unconditionally? Or must they earn it with good performance?

3. Care for others

The infant arrives with an ego-centric concern for their own survival. We must assure them of their safety, give them love and acceptance and then get their focus off of “me, me, me” by encouraging them to think of others.

How can they use their talents and strengths to be of service to others and to support the whole group? We call this developing the child’s social interest. Even your two-year-old can offer a snack to a friend, or help put cans away on the shelf. When we feel part of the group and we think of others needs, we can function in groups more successfully.

A child who is socially interested is willing to wait to speak instead of interrupting. They can handle the disappointment that only one person can have a turn at the paint station at a time.

Does your child show care and concern for others in the family? Do they demand to be served or do they offer to help? Will they accommodate the needs of others and subvert their desires when it’s appropriate?

4. Autonomy

As your wonderful, unique creatures grow up, they need to learn skills and develop a mastery over themselves. They need independence from their parents so they can trust themselves to navigate life without their help.

When children believe they are capable and can handle life’s situations, they lose their fears and anxieties about how they will manage and they engage more fully in all of life’s offerings.

"For a child to feel they have value and a purpose, they need to feel heard and have their voice and opinion count for something."

Are you spending time teaching your child life skills? Or are you still acting as nursemaid or rescuer?

The best way for children to learn they can manage is to be given new challenges that stretch them. For example, once they can sleep over at a friend’s house without having to come home halfway through the night, the next step might be summer camp.

5. Purpose

Yes, even children have an existential need to know why they are here. For children to feel they have value and a purpose, they need to feel heard and have their voice and opinion count for something. Children need to feel they are making an impact and are leaving their fingerprints on something other than the fridge door.

Do you ask your child for input on family decisions in an age appropriate way? Do you listen carefully when they voice their concerns or do you dismiss them? Do you have family meetings where you work together to solve problems in the home and take all opinions into consideration?

If we feel alone and unlovable, if we feel helpless and incapable, if we don’t feel valued and we lose our concern for others, of course we will suffer psychologically. Conversely, if we feel loved, if we feel we belong, if we are confident in our abilities and we know we’re valued, our mental health soars.

The pillars to mental health are universal to all humanity.

Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the mental health crisis among children.

Read More On Young Minds Matter:

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