By Marianne Connolly
It’s the question every parent eventually faces: “Is it normal for children to react like this, or could there be a mental health issue?”
I really empathise with parents. There is so much information out there and the penchant of parents to search online for diagnoses almost always indicates there are big problems.
For example, if you were to search the internet with the question “Why is my child getting headaches?” you could end up following several links and conclude that your child has some kind of mental illness.
However, I want to urge parents to not press the panic button too quickly. This is because there are a number of factors that can have an impact on a child’s wellbeing, and often it is parents who are uniquely positioned to be able to help.
In fact, I can think of three simple practices for parents that could start to have a positive impact on their child’s mental health.
1: Be a role model
Parents may not realise the extent to which children mirror their behaviour. If a parent reacts in a certain way to something, their children are likely to try and replicate that response.
This can work well if the parent models good behaviour. For example, if a child sees their parent hold a door open for someone, the child will likely want to do that for someone else in the future.
However, it can also work negatively. If children hear their parents gossiping behind someone’s back, they’re likely to follow suit. If a child sees their parent lose their temper, the child may be tempted to lose theirs in certain circumstances.
So – what behaviours are you exhibiting that you may not want your child to follow?
2: Use the car
There’s a popular misconception that car rides are to be endured not enjoyed. However, travelling in the car with your child can be an excellent opportunity for their mental wellbeing, going far beyond simply answering “are we there yet?”
This is because when a child is in the car, there is an amazing opportunity to engage them regarding the world around them.
Many families lead busy lives and dinner table conversation can be difficult to prioritise. But the car will take you past building sites, parks, houses, traffic, schools, advertising, shopping centres, Christmas lights… so many things!
This provides wonderful opportunities to grow your child’s sense of wonder. Asking questions such as: “What are they building there?”, “What animal is that?”; “What does that road sign mean?”; “Do you think it’s going to rain?”
This helps your child become curious and imaginative, which can help them make friends easier because they’ll be used to speaking about life and their environment.
3: Help your child understand that being anxious is normal
This last one is possibly the trickiest. As parents, we always want the best for our child, so when they are anxious or nervous we can think “it shouldn’t be this way – something must be wrong”.
However, being nervous and anxious are perfectly normal parts of life. A student that didn’t get nervous before their first speech or sporting performance would be the exception, not the rule.
When your child is anxious or nervous, providing reassurance and encouragement is the best course of action. Don’t hit the panic button and worry they have some kind of mental illness.
Marianne Connolly is the Junior School Director of St Paul’s School in North Brisbane
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