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Eight ways to help your child be mentally healthy

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  May 8, 2012 12:43 PM

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When we talk about keeping children healthy, we usually mean physically healthy. But mental health is just as important -- not only does it have everything to do with the quality of our lives, but it affects our physical health, too.

As with physical health, there are some mental health problems that are biological or genetic and can't be prevented. But some can be prevented, or made less serious. We talk a lot about ways to keep kids physically healthy, like exercising or eating fruits and vegetables. But we tend to talk less about what parents can do to support their child's mental health. So in honor of National Children's Mental Health Awareness Week, here are eight things you can do to help keep your child mentally healthy:

1. Spend time with your child. This sounds obvious, but in our busy lives it's easy to let the family time slide. But time with your child matters. Not only does it help your child feel loved and supported, it makes it more likely that you will pick up on any problems early. So hang out. Play games, go for walks, have movie night. Talk -- and, more importantly, listen.

2. Have family dinners. The more often kids have dinners with their family, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use drugs. It's also been shown to help grades (and lessen the likelihood of obesity). It can be fun -- and it gives you a regular chance to check in with them and hear what's going on.

3. Monitor their media. Media affects the mental health of children in so many ways. Violent video games have been shown to increase the risk of aggression and mental health issues. Sexualized images of women can affect girls' self-esteem. Fast-paced cartoons can interfere with the development of executive function in children -- and lead to a whole host of behavioral problems. Spending too much time on the internet can lead to mental health issues -- and bullying can happen through the internet and texting. I'm not saying you need to cut media out of your child's life -- besides the fact that it would be impossible, there's a lot that's great about media. But know what they are doing with it -- and how much time they are spending.

4. Get them involved in activities they enjoy. Whether it's a soccer team or art class or building cities with Legos, help them find things that make them happy (preferably not video games). Try to find at least one active one (exercise is good for mental health) and one that involves other kids (so they meet others with similar interests). Be sure you pick activities they like, as opposed to things you think they should like -- and be involved and supportive. But ...

5. Don't overschedule. In our quest to keep our kids busy and build the best resume for college and life, we sometimes get carried away. But kids need downtime for good mental health. Make sure there's some of it every day.

6. Get to know -- and check in with -- the other people in your child's life. Not only do teachers, coaches, friends and neighbors influence your child, but they often offer a perspective that you might otherwise miss.

7. If something doesn't seem right to you, don't ignore it. If your child has a change in her behavior, or says something that worries you, or does something unusual, pay attention. Maybe it's nothing, but maybe it's something important. Ask questions. Ask for help.
There are many, many ways to support your child's mental health -- these are just a few. And as with physical health, there are never any guarantees; you can do everything right and still have a child with mental health problems. If that does happen, get all the help you can. Fight for it. Get your doctor to help. And always, whether things are good or hard, remember to ...

8. Make sure your child knows you love him -- no matter what. Tell him you love him whenever you get a chance. Praise sincerely. Discipline is important -- but so is forgiveness. Let him know you have his back, forever.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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