By being engaged, parents can help develop their children’s mental health

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Obesity, nutrition, bullying, social media – you would think these concrete issues would top the list of concerns from parents and children ages eight to 12. But according to a recent report from Companies Committed to Kids (CCK), the most important factor identified to help a child’s development is mental well-being.

On the occasion of its 25th anniversary of leading corporate social responsibility to Canadian children, CCK commissioned a report – Taking the Pulse of Canada’s Kids – partnering with Kids Help Phone, PREVNet, The Psychology Foundation of Canada, The Sandbox Project and YMCA Canada. The online survey asked 1,001 Canadian parents what concerns them about their tweens’ lives. Their children were also asked to participate and 848 responded.

Of four key “pillars” of child development – mental health, emotional health, physical health and social health – parents ranked mental health (42 percent) as the most influential on overall health. Yet kids and parents also ranked their mental well-being as the lowest of the four (parents at 21 percent, kids at 27 percent).

“I wasn’t surprised that mental health is important,” says Dr. Debra Pepler, distinguished research professor of psychology at York University, and cofounder and Scientific Co-Director of PREVNet. “But I was surprised that parents and children were aware of its importance.” That shows how much the awareness of mental health has grown in our consciousness, as well as how deeply linked all the other developmental issues are to mental health.

Almost half of the parents (45 percent) said their child’s ability to “handle life’s ups and downs” is the most important factor for mental well-being. But when you add in two other similar categories – being able to cope with difficult situations (14 percent) and knowing how to manage stress (12 percent) – the concerns around dealing with life climb to 81 percent.

Developing good mental health comes down to a pretty simple strategy, says Dr. Pepler, and that’s communication and conversation. “Canadian children have ranked very low in being able to talk to their mom or dad about their problems. They also ranked low in frequency of having dinner together. All children need time to talk, to know that someone is listening to them and that they can be honest and not hide their feelings with those who love them. That they can be honest and not hide their feelings. That’s when parents can share their coping strategies with their children and talk through those ups and downs.”

The CCK report indicates that managing stress ranked the lowest on the list of what parents and kids talk about, at 28 percent and 25 percent respectively.

Another striking finding of the report is that across the board, kids think they’re better at handling things than their parents do. “This is one of the issues that we need to come to grips with,” says Dr. Pepler. “Kids today have much less freedom and autonomy than a generation ago.” We all remember how we used to walk home from school by ourselves, how we used to go outside to play freely. The report suggests that kids are hardwired to have confidence in their abilities, so parents should take note. “Kids need us to coach them, but coach them towards autonomy. If parents are anxious about that themselves, they often end up bringing that into their parenting.”

The digital world has made life more stressful for kids, says Dr. Pepler. “Peer relationships now go around the clock seven days a week. It used to be that from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. I had my kids and home was their focus. There might be the occasional phone call, but we wouldn’t feel the day to day hassles invading the house.” Parents are not immune to this invasion. “We have our cell phones at our side, respond to work email, literally stepping out of our home life all the time.” Dr. Pepler reminds parents to be present with their kids and think about the pace of their lives.

Unplug And Start Talking

Parents can do a lot to help develop their children’s mental health simply by being engaged. Dr. Debra Pepler, Scientific Co-Director of PREVNet and psychology professor at York University, has this advice:

  • Establish cell phone-free routines, such as dinner time or bedtime.

  • “Make a point of engaging with your kids and talking. You need to be able to focus on them to help them regulate their emotions. They’re learning to calm down for the night and put away their thoughts from the day. They can’t do that, and you can’t teach them that, if your cell phone is buzzing away in your pocket.”

  • Communicating is not something that is easy to do lightly, says Dr. Pepler. It requires thoughtfulness.

  • When you talk about stress with your kids, talk about how you handle it in your own life, and remind them how they have handled it in the past. “Children are completely attuned to us,” says Dr. Pepler. “Watch your child’s face when you’re talking about your own stress. If you see he or she becoming more upset, share a little less.”


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November/ December 2015.

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