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Teaching Kids Independence in Mental Health

The ability to sense when something is off with our emotions and then proactively address the issue before it gets out of hand is a vital part of mental health and self-care. However, this is sometimes difficult even for adults, let alone children. Being in tune with our emotions and consciously paying attention to how our minds work are both skills that require practice. So, it is a good idea to start early, helping young kids learn self-awareness and independence in taking care of their mental health.  

Never Too Early to Start 

In the past, mental health issues were stereotypically considered to be adult concerns. After all, what do little kids have to be worried or upset about? Their life seems to be much simpler, happier, and more carefree than that of grownups.  

Of course, we now know just how important mental health is regardless of age. In fact, the earlier we start talking to kids about ways to regulate emotions, the more we empower them with the necessary skills to navigate life’s challenges effectively.  

By understanding their emotions and coping mechanisms early on, kids can develop resilience and adaptability. These skills are necessary to independently navigate mental health issues that can increase later in life by promoting early intervention practices.  

Environment for Emotional Learning 

A safe and healthy home is crucial for social-emotional learning. It’s important to provide an open and supportive environment where children feel comfortable discussing their emotions and experiences. Avoid harsh punishments, and always explain ‘the why’ behind your decisions. Encourage regular check-ins to build the habit of processing feelings through conversation.  

Model self-care practices and include your children in wellness routines, when you can. For instance, if you find that meditation or yoga works well to bring peace to your mind and heart, introduce your kids to this activity and tell them how you benefit from it. Or, if talking through a difficult issue helps you unpack and process your emotions, share this experience with your children, explaining why this practice is useful to you.  

While it’s okay to be open about your own mental health with your children, make sure not to overwhelm them – you don’t want them to take on your problems and become your therapists. Model universally applicable self-care practices without focusing on an overly specific issue.  

Age-Appropriate Self-Care 

Remember that there is no cookiecutter approach to mental health, and what works for one person may not work for another. Children’s biological and developmental age often determines the types of coping strategies they can access and benefit from.  

For younger kids, their lives are structured by their parent or caretaker. This is a prime opportunity to both model positive practices and give flexibility to experiment with different coping strategies to find what works for them. It might also not be realistic to engage in certain coping strategies due to their age: for instance, a 5-year-old is not going to benefit from a solitary walk around the block.  

Older kids are a lot more self-regulating and autonomous. They learn what coping strategies work for them. They have a lot more say in how they set boundaries and how they manage high-stress situations. Older kids are more capable of recognizing when they need professional help, as well. They might also make poor decisions in terms of coping strategies. There is more susceptibility to negative coping strategies as they get that level of autonomy and access. 

Teaching Self-Awareness 

Arguably the most important skill to practice in taking care of one’s mental health is self-awareness: the ability to listen to yourself, know when something is ‘off’ and ask for help. The best way to teach kids to do this is to help them recognize and label their emotions. 

 Use simple language and visuals to help them identify different feelings like happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and worry. If they have the basic understanding of those emotions, you can progress to helping them to identify the “triggers” or “warning signs” that lead to feeling those emotions. This ultimately is a proactive approach for developing coping skills for emotions as they arise.   

If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. Also, check out our parent coaching services for support and resources. We’re here to support! 

About the Expert 

Leron Haywood is a Licensed Master Social Worker in New York City. Throughout his extensive career in social work, Leron has honed his expertise in delivering individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, and conflict resolution. He firmly believes that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to client support and takes immense pride in equipping his clients with the skills and resources they need for self-sufficient autonomy. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Long Island University and a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Fordham University Graduate School of Social Services.