• Susie Csorsz Brown

Your kids: Mental and Emotional Wellness

Recently, we talked about your kids and Physical Wellness and about Social Wellness.


This is the third of four articles looking at the different part of Wellness, what they are and how they benefit your children. Each article will end with suggestions how to bring more of that wellness to your kids' (and your) lives.


This week, Mental and Emotional Wellness.


What is Mental and Emotional Wellness?


Answer me this: how do you feel? How do you handle day-to-day life? The answer is likely to change from day to day, month to month … maybe even minute to minute (perhaps especially for parents, when dealing with preschoolers or teenagers who are also on a mental and emotional rollercoaster). When I refer to mental and emotional health, a ‘good’ rating would indicate an individual who has positive self-esteem, and can healthfully feel and express a wide range of emotions. This person can build and maintain relationships with others and engage in the world. Very importantly, this part of wellness also includes coping and dealing with stresses of daily life, being productive, and having the ability to adapt and change. Life is full of a lot of emotions – some of them so BIG – so one can also understand that it will change. For someone who is well-balanced in this component of wellness, they will be able to see that things may look down RIGHT NOW and they feel the sadness, but understand that things will change, and they will be able to move past that sadness at some point; sadness is not enduring, nor defining. For one who is not as well in this component will struggle to find their proverbial silver lining; the sadness will endure and cause despair.


Life is full of stressors. Small but significant things that may have a negative impact on this realm of health can include loneliness or dealing with a family member who is ailing, or an impending relocation (often the case for us Foreign Service folks); larger stressors might be lack of sleep, debt or worry about money, unemployment, abuse or even trauma. Have you ever heard about a Stress scale? This is a tool that determines your stress load. Different life events carry a different stress load; your ability to deal with these stressors is greatly determined by your level of mental and emotional well-being. This can be defined as your resiliency, which is your ability to bounce back after a slap in the face (both proverbial and physical). You can't go through life without being knocked back or even down a few times; how you get back up is telling of your coping abilities. As the saying goes, you can't fully understand hope without understanding hopelessness. It is the ability to move through the stages - towards hope - that defines wellness. Resilience is not just trying hard; but rather trying hard, sure, and also being willing to try differently, developing a strong set of problem-solving skills.



Why is Mental and Emotional Wellness important for your kids?


Good mental health allows children to think clearly, develop socially and learn new skills. Additionally, good friends and encouraging words from adults are all important for helping children develop self confidence, high self-esteem, and a healthy emotional outlook on life.


Two specific skills are key to good mental and emotional health: optimism and resiliency. Optimism is an ability to enjoy life. It is the practice of expecting and seeing the good in a situation, and having a positive outlook. Resiliency is the ability to bounce back after a stressor or a challenge. The greater one’s resiliency, the better they would be able to bounce back after that proverbial (or literal) slap in the face. Both of these skills contribute to a growth mindset, which is the ability to deal with challenges, and learn from experiences. A person who is able to try hard, or try differently and not give up when they experience a mistake or a failure is able to realize that they can grow and learn, and try harder and maybe succeed the next time. Embracing a growth mindset is embracing the word ‘yet’; this is all a big part of developing grit, which is key for successfully navigating life’s (mis)adventures and successes!


Additionally, strong mental and emotional health contributes to proper processing of information, and the ability to experience – feel and express -- a full range of emotions. This person can establish and maintain relationships with others and engage positively with the world. This person can cope and deal with daily stresses of life, also known as grit or ‘stick-to-it-iveness’, and be productive. And, also very important, this person can adapt and change to the evolving world and life around them.


Good mental health allows children to think clearly, develop socially and learn new skills. Additionally, good friends and encouraging words from adults are all important for helping children develop self confidence, high self-esteem, and a healthy emotional outlook on life.



What are some things you can do with your kids to help them embrace better mental and emotional wellness? We can encourage them to do:


1. Have an open dialogue with your kids about what self-confidence looks like. While this may appear to be more of a social thing, self-confidence is such a key part of one's mental and emotional well-being. Being happy with who you are, knowing that making mistakes is human and from mistakes we grow and get better, knowing that not every person will like us and that is okay ... all of this is a part of our self-confidence. We, as adults, have hopefully learned these lessons and have come to own our self-confidence realizations and realities. Our kids? Still working on it. Help them develop these essential skills by being completely approachable with their questions. Let them know about some of your learning lessons and mistakes. They will appreciate the candor and maybe learn a few things without having to have the hard knocks themselves (or, if they are like my kids, they will still go through the ‘teachable moment’ and then realize what you said was actually true, and then give you that grunt of acknowledgement when you ask them how activity xyz went).


2. While I am encouraging dialogue with your kids, try, too, to help your kids to break those emotional traps society has created for them: boys don't cry; girls don't yell; boys are able to 'brush it off' when they get hurt; girls shouldn't get angry and talk back; boys shouldn't get emotional; girls should be calm. You want to know what I think? The sooner we can help our kids identify, name, and express the full gamut of their emotions, the sooner we will be able to put psychologists out of business (sorry, doctors!). Emotionally intelligent people feel and experience all of their emotions; they are not floored or felled by the strong negative ones, and they are not crashing after the huge positive ones. Both males and females should and can experience all emotions; there are not any that should be sorted into the 'girl' or 'boy' pile. Just like it’s okay for girls to wear blue and boys to wear pink, the full emotional experience should be available for our kids, no matter what society thinks.


Help your kids understand their emotions. Let them feel the full spectrum – anger, happiness, disappointment, sorrow – and VERY IMPORTANT help them use their words. Yes, in fact, being able to properly express how you are feeling, - using ‘I’ statements, not accusing, accepting responsibility, looking for solutions – is important. Being able to label what you are feeling, to describe what you believe to be causing your emotional state, and to tell another person what you are feeling is a big step in learning how to deal healthfully with big emotions. This is not just appropriate for anger, but for a whole range of emotions from happy to sad to confused. This is typically a challenge for kids to learn; all they know is that they are feeling something really big, and it is feeling overwhelming.


Be aware – and help your kids to be aware -- that all emotions are useful. I read recently that if one believes that happiness is the most important emotion, then they are actually less happy (on average). Is this sort of like the Facebook phenomena ('everyone else's FB life is so much cooler than mine...')? I don't know. But fact of the matter is: all emotions are important and vital and understand that is part of being emotional health. One very critical part of emotional wellness is developing your skills to deal with and move past difficult emotions; this is also one of the trickiest parts. Acceptance of all emotions - positive and negative - is actually a key part in helping one to be less stressed and anxious. Learning to not label emotions as 'good' or 'bad' is also a key part of this acceptance. Without acknowledging all of our emotions, we cannot thoroughly appreciate the ones that are more enjoyable, right?


It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to have strong feelings. But having strong feelings for a long period of time can be hurtful to one’s health and body. Literally, having the stress hormones associated with anger present in the body can wreak havoc on one’s emotional and physical health. Part of the art of managing anger includes learning skills and behaviors that can help to calm these strong feelings. Activities like yoga, meditation, going for a walk, or breathing exercises can help reduce the angry response and promote a more peaceful frame of mind.


A very important skill everyone benefits from is learning how to calm their own emotional response; each person will find a unique mix of activities that can help ease their strong emotional state, and help them to feel more at peace. What brings you to your happy place? What helps you to feel more calm and centered? Teaching these skills to your kids can be a rewarding experience.


3. Let your children solve their own (age-appropriate) mental problems. Just like college essay judges can tell when parents have written the essay for their kids, we observers can all tell when a parent is taking over solving their kid's problems. Parent, you cannot put your kids in bubbles; let them have life experience! Letting a child solve their own problems - be it a schedule conflict or a lost toy - not only enables that child to realize that they can and should depend on themselves to solve their own problems, but it also builds self-confidence and teaches them how to assess when and if they do need outside assistance. Not every problem is going to be as easy as looking under the bed for the lost teddy bear; soon enough, as their age, abilities and independence increases, so does the complexity of their situations and problems.


4. Respect respect respect. Help your kids to understand what respect is, what it means to have a 'difference of opinion' and how one can have a discussion with another person who may not necessarily share the same viewpoint. Help your child develop their world view; not every child is going to be a white boy from a middle-income family living in a foreign country, attending a private international school (Qu'elle suprise!). Every single aspect of what makes us individuals - our gender, skin color, birth place, birth order, religious preference, favorite color, dominant hand, language skills, breakfast choice .... these all color our point of view. And none of it makes us wrong. Or right. It just gives us an opinion, and that is something everyone is entitled to. And, further, one can learn so very much if we take the time and gather the patience to listen to the opinion of others. In fact, we might very well just change our own opinions a bit, too, once we listen to others. It is our responsibility as parents to take the time to teach our children to respect others.


As much as you can, validate the feelings of others. It is not nice to call others 'overly sensitive' or tell them to get over it; the feelings (and associated angst) are real. Validate that. Hear what they are saying. It isn't your problem to solve (unless that is what they are asking you to do), but if the person in front of you telling you a problem and that person is someone you care about, then give an honest effort to care about how they are feeling. And listen to it without any devices anywhere near you.


5. You've heard of Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, right? It is part of our drive to secure the bottom of the pyramid for ourselves and for our loved ones (security, food and water, warmth, rest). As we move up the pyramid, we move to more emotional needs like love and self-esteem. Finally at the top lies our self-fulfillment. (This is clearly much more complicated than these two lines can express and my apologies to all psych majors for glossing over years of your schooling in a couple sentences.) The point is, while it is your right to secure these for yourself and for your loved ones; it is NOT your right to infringe on or take these same rights of others. It is our jobs as parents to help our children understand this. Yes, you might see this is an extension of #4 for kids (above) but I think it is important enough to emphasize this.


6. Teach your kids when the right time to say ‘no’ is, and why it is important to know how to do that. Obviously, there are things that you just HAVE to, and definitely there are the things you absolutely WANT to do, but … that does not mean every little ask deserves a yes. Say no and do not apologize for it. Teach your kids to be thoughtful in their responses, and then they won’t hurt feelings; in fact, having a solid reply is probably preferable for the one doing the asking. Help your kids understand that being ‘unbusy’ is just as important as getting our necessary tasks accomplished.

7. I know I have already said this, but it bears repeating: Make sure your kids are getting enough sleep. Without enough sleep every emotion, every thought, every feeling is amplified and exacerbated. It's not the end of the world because there is no milk for cereal but it honestly feels like it when you haven’t had a good night’s sleep. Every little niggle turns into a huge mountain-sized offense. Every task you try to do is filled with errors. What fixes this? Getting enough sleep.


8. Help your kids be deliberately positive about other people. I know, it sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but bear with me. Start with this (and yes, you can do this for yourself, too!): help your kids to deliberately focus on their reaction to other people. Most of the time, this is an automatic response; your brain figures out if the person is “friend,” “neutral,” or “foe.” Clearly, their response to the former and the latter will be very different; should the response be happy to see them or run away in fear? For the neutral party, we can probably assume the individual will be irrelevant to, and will simply walk by. Except they don’t really. These are the ones we should be paying attention to. Ask your kids: what does your mind tell you about that irrelevant person? Do they notice a particular characteristic (e.g. fat, thin, tall, scraggly, tired-looking)? Do they automatically jump to uncharitable thoughts? Why does this even matter? I’ll tell you: these thoughts start to permeate attitude, and color internal dialog. These negative thoughts start to dictate actions. These thoughts start to be the go-to: I think negatively, so I act negatively. In turn, others start responding negatively.

Well, that’s no fun.

What if, instead, we help our kids to develop the habit of when coming upon a neutral person, bringing a kind or positive thought to mind? What if they did that for everyone they saw? What if the process trained their mind to think the best of people, best for people … and the best for themself? What if this positivity habit were as easy to adopt with a few minutes of deliberate focus and thoughts? Because it really is that easy.

Try this (for yourself and your kids): when out and about or around a number of people, spend time – 10 minutes – deliberately thinking positive or kind thoughts about everyone you see. Do this deliberately for 10 minutes every day for a week. You will be surprised at how your self-dialogue and your frame of mind will improve and be more positive. You will be surprised at how much easier it will be to be more positive every day. And you will be surprised at how it will start to become an automatic thought process.



For further reading:


https://www.self.com/story/11-little-mental-health-tips-that-therapists-actually-give-their-patients


https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_happens_when_you_embrace_dark_emotions


https://www.fatherly.com/love-money/short-tempered-advice

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