It takes a lot of patience combined with good judgment and warm, nurturing relationships to raise emotionally healthy, comfortable and cheerful children. But no matter what you do, your children are still going to feel sad, afraid, anxious, and angry from time to time. Your challenge, as a parent, is to learn how to help your children cope with their feelings and express them in socially acceptable ways that don't harm others and that are appropriate to their age and abilities.
Importance of Trust
The most important factor in fostering mental health in your child is the quality of the relationship you have with her. Without the presence of trust in this relationship, it's impossible for your child to feel safe, close, or comfortable. Trust has its roots in infancy, when babies gain confidence that they can depend on adults around them to meet their basic needs. From your baby's perspective, reasonably prompt and consistent care is an essential ingredient in developing trust. When her needs are responded to, your baby develops trust and confidence, and feels valued and important.
It's also important to maintain that trustful feeling as your child continues to grow. One of the easiest ways to build trust is by maintaining an orderly routine throughout the day so your child can predict what's going to happen next. Consistent rules that your child understands also add to his sense of trust. Adults who maintain their self-control encourage children to trust them. Then children can predict what their responses will be and this breeds confidence in the relationship. It's also important for rules and tasks to be appropriate for the child's age and abilities.
Trust between you and your child's other caregivers is also essential. This connection is important for all children, but especially for children with disabilities.
Choices and Limits
The toddler's drive toward independence and self-assertion is an important stage of emotional development. Maintain limits when necessary and independence when it's possible. Avoid confrontations when you can, insist on doing things your way when necessary, and provide as many choices for your child as possible. There are many choices that you can offer, but they are limited choices: not "do you want to put on a sweatshirt?" but "which sweatshirt?" not "do you want any vegetables on your plate?" but "do you want carrots or beans?" You can also give your children choices about their play and activities. When children are expected to choose for themselves what they want to do, they have endless opportunities for making decisions.
Older children of 4 or 5 years need to reach out to the world around them, to be a part of and connected to the group. Try to encourage children of this age to think things up and try things out. It's important for them to feel the emotional satisfaction that comes from experiences of exploring, acting and doing new things together with friends.
When children don't have opportunities to make choices, endless struggles result with a spirited child and a loss of self-confidence in less spirited children. But not everything is a choice and sometimes the answer is "no." Learning how to cope with disappointments, delays, and setbacks is also a critical part of developing a healthy, balanced mental attitude. Try to reduce the level and frequency of disappointments and frustrations in order to avoid unnecessary battles.
Feel What You Want, Control What You Do
One of the most valuable skills you can teach your children is how to express strong emotions without hurting themselves, others, or damaging property. Help your children learn to feel what they want, but control what they do. Begin by communicating to your child in a non-judgmental way, showing him you understand how he feels. Encourage your child to say his feelings out loud and to tell the other person how he feels. If the child's too young or inexperienced to know what to say, model a simple sentence for him to copy. The important thing to remember is that the same rule applies to you: feel what you want, but control what you do.
Hallmarks of Emotional Health
Here are some ways that can help you decide if your child is doing all right:
- Is your child working on emotional tasks that are appropriate for her age and ability? For example, if she's two and a half, is she asserting herself from time to time?
- Is your child able to separate from you without undue stress and form an attachment with at least one other adult?
- Is your child learning to conform to routines at school without too much trouble?
- Is your child able to involve himself deeply in play?
- Can your child settle down and concentrate?
- Is your child aware of all her feelings and can she express them without harming herself or others?