We all have mental health. Some days we have more of it and other days less of it. This point is true for our children as well. Establishing a foundation of good mental health affects our children for the rest of their lives. As with many elements that affect children physically, early intervention is the key.
We know that early intervention for physical illnesses, speech concerns and developmental milestones will increase the likelihood of overcoming these challenges. We need to start thinking of early intervention for mental wellness. Intervening early is key, but we don’t always know when to be concerned. “What is normal childhood or adolescent behavior?” “Is this just part of growing up?” “What do I do?” are questions many parents ask. These questions must be asked regularly and answered honestly. Just like wellness visits with the pediatrician, we need check-in times to maintain mental health.
One of the lessons I learned as a mom was that my children had feelings—strong, intense feelings about everything. Very early, these feelings showed up in various
ways—usually with some crying and some screaming involved.
What my children did not have was the language to describe what they felt, and I did not understand the language they were using. They substituted primary emotions with accessible emotions. The ability to tell me rationally that they were scared that I was leaving was not in their vocabulary, but if they screamed and threw objects, I would have to stay and pay attention to them. I had to learn the language that they were using with me.
When my firstborn was overlooked by a server trying to help quiet her younger sibling, I was surprised to hear her express, “Hey, lady. There are two kids as this table!” However, I also realized that now we were entering new territory—verbal expression of primary emotions. Feelings are good, and our ability to express them appropriately are a key to mental health development.
We can’t overstate the importance of developing skills to maintain our mental health as we grow. As parents, we have the opportunity to model expression of feelings, living through sadness and coping with anxiety. This past year has certainly reminded us that there are things out of our control. Figuring out how to cope with all the change and loss has affected us all. Our children are watching how we handle all the changes, and they are hearing how we express ourselves.
We can model good self-care so that they also learn to practice these steps. Taking time out during a difficult situation, deep breathing when we want to raise our voice or walking around the block are simple ways we can demonstrate skills our children will need during their lifetimes.
Developing our mental health is a lifelong endeavor. Sometimes we need to recognize we need help. When we ask, “What do I do?” it’s probably time to reach out. Frederick County has resources to help. When you don’t know where to start, the Mental Health Association (MHA) helps with services focused on increasing children’s resilience and promoting good mental health. Mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. It is resilience and hope.
Start today. Call 211 or visit the Walk-in Crisis center at MHA. We are here.
Suzi Borg is the division director of crisis services for the Mental Health Association of Frederick County. Learn more about the organization by visiting fcmha.org.