How to Promote Mental Health in Childhood

Promoting mental health in childhood is essential to ensure mental health in adulthood. Let's see what the experts have to say.
How to Promote Mental Health in Childhood
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 10 March, 2023

When thinking about mental health disorders, it’s rarely in regard to children. In general, we believe that problems such as anxiety, depression, or stress are typical conditions of adulthood and not so much from early childhood. Promoting mental health in childhood is essential, as the presence of disorders in adulthood is often a consequence of neglecting care in the first years of life.

According to experts, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in children and young people throughout the world. It’s especially so in the American continent and in Europe, although it’s a growing problem in Asia and Africa. Let’s take a look at some reflections on the matter accompanied by advice to promote mental health in childhood.

The importance of mental health in childhood

As researchers note, behavioral disorders, developmental disorders, and emotional disorders are the most common mental health problems children experience. According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the most prevalent are the following:

This is just a sample of the most common problems, but in practice, the list exceeds twenty disorders. Experts have identified two possible pathways by which early childhood experiences can lead to one of these:

  • Through parenting behaviors: New neural connections are formed as children learn, play, and interact with their parents and their environment. Affective interactions promote beneficial effects, while the most unpleasant ones translate into harmful effects in response.
  • Stressful or threatening experiences: Trauma, abandonment, separation, negative attachment response, and so on trigger a series of responses that result in structural remodeling of the neural architecture. Especially when they’re very abrupt, aren’t accompanied by the proper support, and when they overlap.

According to estimates, between 13 and 20% of children and adolescents worldwide suffer from some type of mental health problem. This is by no means a minor problem, and it’s even one that has experienced alarming growth in recent decades.

As mental health in childhood defines mental health in adolescence and adulthood, promoting it is a necessity and obligation of parents, the community, and the State.

7 tips to promote mental health in childhood

Mental disorders are multifactorial in nature, such that they’re associated with a multitude of modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors and catalysts. Although the psychological well-being of children is the responsibility of many, there are several things you can do from home to promote mental health in childhood. We’ve chosen 7 that are recommended by experts.

1. Encourage play

Unicef catalogs play as one of the best strategies to promote mental health in childhood. Through it, children develop and consolidate emotional, social, motor, cognitive, and linguistic skills; they end up strengthening the bond with their parents and generating a bond of trust.

It’s also useful for relieving stress, frustration, and fear. Any game is welcome, both individual and group play.

2. Allow them to spend quality time with others

A meal with extended family.
The coexistence of children with their peers or with other family members is essential for their personal development.

The quality time they spend with you is very important, of course; but so is what happens with others. Their schoolmates, their neighborhood friends, their relatives (cousins, grandparents, and more), and even the little ones they meet at the playground help them hone their social skills.

Preventing them from enjoying this will only bring about the opposite. Social skills are suppressed, which often leads to problems with their psychological well-being in the near future.

3. Foster a stable family structure

Experts have linked disruptive family structures with an increased risk of children and young people developing mental health disorders. Divorces, conflicts, fights, abandonment, and others are associated with worse objective assessments of children’s mental health. These episodes can generate trauma, which in turn can trigger some of the problems mentioned.

4. Encourage physical activity and sports

Evidence has supported physical activity, exercise, and sports as one of the best prevention strategies for mental disorders. They’re also part of the treatment of many of them.

On the contrary, sedentary lifestyles in children have been associated with worse assessments of their mental health. Encouraging sports will also allow you to teach them discipline and values and educate them in a culture of effort in order to achieve achievements.

5. Implement a healthy diet

Researchers have found a substantial relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns and poorer mental health in children and adolescents. Similarly, there seems to be a strong connection between a balanced diet and better mental health among them. Incorporating a varied diet that includes all the food groups is another way to promote mental health in childhood.

6. Adopt a pet

A tolder girl playing with a cat outdoors.
Pets are faithful companions for children and provide strong emotional support for the whole family.

Experts have known for decades that interaction with animals has positive results on the mental health of children and young people. In fact, some authors recommend it during the perinatal stage to strengthen the psychological health of the mother and the child. Adopting a pet or promoting activities with animals can be very helpful during child development.

7. Take care of your own mental health

Experts warn about the relationship between the unstable mental health of parents and the psychological well-being of their children. Children of parents with anxiety, depression, stress, and other disorders are more likely to manifest problems of this type. It’s for this reason that taking care of your own mental health is essential to encouraging the same in your little one.

Of course, promoting mental health in childhood also involves seeking professional help when any suspicion is detected in this regard. Acting in time represents a radical difference in the evolution of any disorder, so parents must be attentive to any sign in order to turn to a qualified psychologist.

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