By Julianna Hindemith, Silver Linings volunteer
May 7th was National Child and Youth Mental Health Day. It was also my birthday, and I took the opportunity to reflect on my childhood. I was not always happy growing up. My mental health suffered considerably as a result of struggling with two eating disorders, being bullied about my weight and experiencing a home that was full of conflict. Once a confident and outgoing child, these challenges led me to grow into a fearful and volatile adult. My self-esteem, friendships, participation in extracurricular activities and home-life were all compromised. To this day, my relationship with my family still needs mending and I feel like I missed out on many of the joys of childhood.
Thankfully I have now reached a place of peace with myself. But it still bothers me that the decline of my mental wellbeing might have been prevented or at least addressed sooner. Unfortunately my experience is all too common. The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that 1.2 million Canadian children and youth are affected by mental illness but only 20 percent receive appropriate treatment.
A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. As children learn and adapt from their surroundings, a lot of responsibility for nurturing mental wellbeing lies with parents and caregivers.
Here are some tips for parents to help you support the mental health of your children:
Talk about your own feelings and vulnerabilities with your children. As they grow children will learn that some days are going to be more difficult than others. This is a reality that they should not be shielded from. Work on cultivating an open, shame-free, supportive environment for your feelings and your child’s.
Participate as a family in physical activity. Fresh air and the endorphins produced through exercise promote positivity.
Be aware of the impact that witnessing confrontation can have on your children. I was front row to many arguments between my parents. This deeply affected me and contributed to a lot of anger and self-sabotage as I got older. In hindsight, if my parents would have explored counselling or other healthy communication strategies all of us would have benefitted.
Limit your child’s access to television, video games and social media. There are many studies pointing to negative impacts on a child’s development and self-esteem from too much screen time. Your children will thank you in the future.
Set aside time for family mealtimes. This is very important for many reasons including helping children learn vital social skills and the value of social interaction.
Be the person your child can confide in. From my own experience feeling alone and unsupported contributed to the development of my eating disorders. To be clear, this is not to suggest that parents cause these illnesses, but rather, to stress how much eating disorders thrive on shame and secrecy. Parents can help combat this.
Learn to breathe, take a step back and calmly resolve problems. This is a very valuable skill, period. Your children will take note.
Most importantly, love your children for who they are! Your children look up to you. Your acceptance has a huge impact on their self-esteem, happiness and overall well-being.
Footnote: If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, please seek advice from a family physician. For additional tips and resources, please check out this link on Silver Linings’ website, www.silverliningsfoundation.ca/how-to-help