All children face mental health challenges at some point in their lives. Here's what parents can do to help their kids build a strong foundation for mental wellness.

By Cristi Bundukamara, Ed.D
April 14, 2021
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Just as all children are susceptible to the common cold, all children are likely to experience challenges to their mental wellbeing. Parents encourage children to bundle up, eat nutritious foods, and exercise to improve their physical health. However, for too long, misconceptions that mental illnesses are permanent or exclusively related to genetics have discouraged parents from considering what they can do to raise mentally strong children. Now's the time to change this.

An image of a father and daughter laughing.
Credit: Getty Images.

As a mental health care practitioner who works with young children and new parents, I've created a Growth Wheel to emphasize the components of raising mentally strong children. There are eight categories of growth that parents should consider when it comes to nurturing their children's mental health: emotional, relationship, communication, moral, confidence, physical, and control.

I use the Growth Wheel as a mindfulness intervention in clinical practice and encourage the families I work with to explore each of these categories to improve their mental wellbeing. Here's how the Growth Wheel is set up and how to use it to raise a mentally strong child.

Emotional Growth

Visualize the experience of emotions and stress with your children. Parents' efforts to visualize their own emotions can help children understand mental stress as a normal experience and illustrate healthy processes of coping. You might be familiar with visual diagrams like cloud maps, tree diagrams, Venn diagrams, and others—use these to share your feelings with your children and encourage them to do the same during times of stress.

Credit: Cristi Bundukamara

Relationship Growth

Co-create levels to express relationship needs and boundaries. It is important that children understand how varying levels of trust condition relationships with others and reflect important boundaries. As children begin to make relationships with other children and adults, actively invite them to create "five levels" of relationships. An effective way to do this is they could draw a circle or house with themselves represented in the center and then have them add people such as family and friends inside the house and work their way to the outside. They could even draw various places such as their school. This exercise can help them "sort" people visually and learn what types of boundaries to have in different situations. Use this as a creative thought exercise to distinguish boundaries of trust. Be sure to distinguish parental love from the other levels.

Communication Growth

Acknowledge communication as a process and aspire for efficiency. Your goal does not need to be to understand all of the reasons for your child's stress. Try as you might, but you'll be unable to read their minds. In moments of disagreement, rather than asserting your authority or questioning their reasoning, you can aspire for communication efficiency by searching for common ground and recognizing larger long-term goals and shared interests.

Moral Growth

Empower children to make decisions with moral consequences by playing "you be the judge." Psychologists believe that by age 6 to 7, children are able to consider complicated questions of justice and fairness. When playing "you be the judge," children are empowered to make decisions and you are provided an opportunity to influence your child's moral development. A simple way to accomplish this could be to do a role reversal and ask them how they would feel and want you to respond if you were the "child" in the role play and they were the adult. This could also be a stepping stone for explaining empathy to your child.

Spiritual Growth

Dedicate time to talk about connection and transcendence. Children have an innate sense of awe and wonder. Ask them to talk about their philosophical beliefs and they may surprise you! Opportunities to ask these deep questions can come from time in nature, themes inspired by a movie, or a passing moment of shared awareness. However, these don't need to be rare moments. Make talking with your children about spiritual issues a regular habit at a young age and it will feel easier when they get older, and the topics get more complex.

Confidence Growth

Reward children's 'quiet ego' and encourage mindfulness activities without praise. Facilitating and encouraging experiences of immersion and creativity may be more meaningful to children's mental wellness than receiving positive praise for the outcomes. Instead of praising your child for the product they created, you can speak to their sense of self by praising children for qualities like focus, creativity, and enthusiasm.

Physical Growth

Model self-care for your children. Research shows children can sense parent's stress. You should discuss your stress and explain your reasons for practicing self-care. Children should also be encouraged to identify healthy activities that reduce their stress and be encouraged to practice self-care themselves. You can normalize self-care and condition healthy responses to stress by modeling these behaviors yourself.

Control Growth

Commit to routine techniques of mindfulness. Children and adults can learn a wide range of mindfulness techniques that can improve self-control and enhance personal insights. In a previous article for Parents, Meagan McCarthy, a special-education teacher in Tucson describes using "the push/pull technique" with children expressing aggression. This activity works by having you face your child and letting them push into your palms with their hands as they breathe out. McCarthy says that it helps them get aggression out in a safe way.

Similarly, parents and children can develop mindfulness techniques to better communicate their mental wellbeing. Together, you might try using breathing exercises, intentional walking, journaling, yoga, or other techniques. Find what works for you and make it a routine!

The Bottom Line

As parents, it is important to understand mental health as a dynamic state of wellbeing. Each of these eight tips provides a way to support your child's mental health as a natural part of growth and development. When used in combination with one another over a period of time, these developmental tips may become healthy habits that help parents raise mentally strong children.