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Alyson Schafer: Are Your Kids Mentally Healthy?


Bell's Let's Talk day is a special day each year designed to bring awareness to mental health issues in Canada. This campaign helps to reduce the stigma of mental illness while also raising much needed funds. Most people are unaware of just how prevalent mental health issues are.

Did you know:

1. Every Canadian will confront a mental issue at some point in their lifetime. It may be their own, but it may also be their friend, partner, parent, co-coworker or other significant person.

2. 20 per cent of adults will have a mental health issue at some point.

3. One in five kids under the age of 19 have a mental, emotional or behavioural issues severe enough to impact their functioning at home and school.

4. Mental illnesses cost Canadians about $20.7 billion in 2012 by reducing the number of workers available in the labour force, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

Pretty staggering statistics! As a parenting expert, I want to take this opportunity to bring the awareness to parents that children suffer with mental health issues, too. It's not just a big kid's game.

Too often we assume childhood is an innocent peaceful utopia. How hard can it be going to kindergarten? Well, in fact very hard. We tend to look at children's stressors through our adult lens and diminish their importance. However, to children who have less developed coping strategies and who are sensitive to environmental stressors, they can really suffer.

Childhood issues can grow into much bigger problems if they are not nipped in the bud. Adult mental issues may have taken root by age 14.

I like to think of mental health in much the same way we think about physical health. It falls along a continuum, with elite Olympian on one end and couch potato on the other. Mental health is similar. We have varying degrees of being mentally healthy and robust or more weak and struggling. That means our work is to ensure mental hygiene is as imperative as dental hygiene!

But how do parents learn this skill? Sure, we are given information on how to feed a child properly and how to recognize when they not eating enough. We are taught how to watch for fevers or rashes, but we have no clue about how to support children's mental health or how to watch for the signs that things are going off the rails. Let's change that right now!

A fellow colleague, Betty Lou Bettner, speaks of "The 4 Crucial Cs" that every child needs to ensure their mental resilience and well being. They are:

1. I need to believe I am CONNECTED (that I belong, that I am socially accepted for who I am)

2. I need to believe I am CAPABLE (I can do it! Mastery, skills, autonomy, self reliance)

3. I need to believe I COUNT (I need to participate and contribute to the group -- through chores and helping out, sharing my opinion and having my voice heard in choices that impact me.)

4. I need to believe I am COURAGEOUS (I need the courage to be an imperfect person! I need to to know that mistakes are opportunities to learn and not simply a personal failing -- as if I am somehow inferior when I make mistakes.)

Children learn through experience and modelling. If we parent in ways that ensure our children get early life experiences that are likely to help them shape these beliefs we are doing good parenting work!

If our children have the four crucial C beliefs, you will know because they will be co-operative and caring. They will know how to take turns and wait and function in a group rather than either being isolated or a disturber. They meet the needs of the situation, even if that means waiting to have your turn at the drinking fountain rather than pushing someone to be first.

So how do we know when our child is slipping into poor mental hygiene? Here are the signs are kids are struggling:

- sudden drop in grades at school

- complaining of feeling ill -- tummy aches and headaches

- not wanting to go to school or other usual favourite activities

- moody

- isolates themselves from the family

- outburst of anger/violence

- sullen and sad, weepy

- loss of appetite

- self-loathing statements

- self harm

- use and abuse of substances

What can a parent do if they begin seeing signs of trouble? Take a parenting class and learn about proper discipline methods. Speak to your child's teacher and see if he or she has any insights about your child's social life at school. Speak to your doctor and see if he or she feels an assessment is necessary or for a referral to a family counsellor or children's mental health agency. Get support for yourself and advocate for your child.

The good news? Children are very receptive and change happens quickly!

How To Raise Mentally Healthy Kids
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