It is common for people to bring their child for psychotherapy when they believe that something is wrong. If they find their child is suddenly overwhelmed, their mood has taken a turn for the worse, or difficult circumstances have arisen. Often times people will bring their daughter or son to see a psychologist as a last resort or when they feel they are out of other resources. The child may meet the criteria for a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder by the time that they walk through the door.
However, parents don’t tend to think about these types of disorders as preventable. It is common for parent to immunize their children in case they are exposed to mumps or measles. From a young age, we teach healthy eating and the importance of exercise to protect again diabetes and obesity. We don’t often talk about steps to take to prevent the development of a mood disorder.
Studies have found a variety of circumstances that both increase or decrease the likelihood of developing a mental health condition. “Risk factors” are linked with an increased probability of onset, greater severity, and longer duration of major health problems. “Protective factors” modify, improve or alter a person’s response to challenging environmental circumstances, in order to make the development of a mental illness less likely. Protective factors can be both social/environmental and individual.
As parents, we can attempt to maximize our children’s exposure to protective factors and minimize risk factors in their surroundings. Risk factors on a social level include access to drugs and alcohol, isolation, peer rejection, poverty or racial discrimination. Notably, one major environmental risk factor is displacement, which is a circumstance for many expatriate children. Therefore, the need to maximize other protective factors is even more important.
Social protective factors include empowerment, positive interpersonal interactions,
social participation, social support, and community networks. Help your child make connections within the community where you live. Take them to meet the neighbors and schedule play dates with other children. Encourage them to attend after-school activities and join groups and clubs. Allow them to make decisions, such as choosing the color of their room or where the family goes for dinner. Ensure that the majority of your interactions with them are cheerful and optimistic, both to increase their exposure to positive circumstances and to model that attitude.
Individual risk factors are also important for parents to be aware of as well. These include difficulties in school, such as academic failure, learning disorders, and poor study habits, and attention deficits. Physical concerns such as insomnia, chronic illness, and pain are risk factors as are challenges with communication skills and sensory integration. Individuals who come from families with substance use and conflict are also more likely to develop mental illnesses. So what can we do to help our children if they are dealing with any of these circumstances?
Parents can help their children develop protective factors within themselves. These include emotional resilience, positive thinking, problem-solving skills, stress management skills and feelings of mastery.
Combat learned helplessness by teaching arguments against a pessimistic outlook. People who develop mental health concerns often view the world according to the “three P’s”. When something goes wrong, they look at the situation as personal (something is wrong with me), pervasive (my entire life is going poorly), and permanent (what I’m experiencing will never get any better.) Help children view their difficulties as involving the world around them and other people as well. Have them identify the other good things in their lives when times get rough, and remind them that things will always change.
Encourage children to develop coping skills before difficult circumstances arise. These can include relaxation techniques such as visualizing a calming setting and deep breathing. They can also be taught ways to deal with strong emotions, such as expressing themselves through writing or drawing. When your child does go through a negative experience, help them think about lessons that they can take from it. Ask how it might make them stronger, who they found was a good source of support, and what they might do differently in the future- without making them feel guilty.
Help children feel proud of the things that make them special and unique. Allow them to participate in activities and teams where they can experience success. Teach your child to take care of their physical health to maintain mental health as well. These involve eating a balanced and healthy diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.
It is important to realize that it is never possible to ensure your child does not face a mental health disorder. Do not put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect, and do not blame yourself if they are diagnosed. If such a situation does arise, continue supporting them in the ways identified above, to minimize the impact on their lives now and in the future.