Most parents know how to support a healthy immune system in their child— but preventing mental illness and improving their mental health? Not so much.
Many parents wonder to what degree they really can help a child overcome a family history of addiction or mental illness. And they question what it will take to help their child navigate the stresses of adolescence and young adulthood with mental health intact.
Things a Parent Can Do to Support Their Child’s Mental Health
The good news is that parents can do a lot to improve their child’s mental health and decrease their chances of developing a mental illness.
This is because a genetic predisposition for anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders—while important—is one of a number of factors that ultimately determine whether your child will develop anxiety, depression or another mental health condition.
For example, we now know that lifestyle elements such as one’s diet can have a strong bearing on mood, so that if you have a condition like anxiety, what you eat can significantly impact your symptoms.
We also know that people can improve their mental health by doing other things in addition to eating right, such as exercise, meditation, and limiting social media use. (Discover more things you can do to improve your mental wellbeing.)
The takeaway of such findings is that a child’s home environment can have a significant impact on their developing psyche and whether they go on to develop a mental disorder.
How the Right Home Environment Can Protect an At-Risk Child from Mental Illness
A 2006 study at UCLA confirmed this link between home and family environment and kids’ mental health. The researchers found that a positive, low-stress family environment decreased the risk of depression in genetically at-risk kids, whereas a cold and unsupportive family environment increased the likelihood of depression in genetically at-risk kids.
The takeaway: that when parents create a home environment that is characterized by warmth and affection, positive affirmation, and unconditional love and support, they will be boosting their children’s immunity to mental illness.
How to Support Your Child’s Mental Health and Protect Them from Mental Illness
On that note, here are 10 tips for creating a home environment that boosts your child’s immunity to mental illness:
- Give your children positive affirmation wherever you can on a daily basis.
- Show physical and emotional affection, by integrating these expressions of love into your daily routine. A bedtime cuddle while you read a book together, a hug or “I love you” when you drop them off at school, or even a good-natured round of wrestling can convey your unconditional love.
- Try to model healthy approaches to conflict with your spouse, and avoid angry outbursts and yelling that contribute to a tension-filled home.
- Monitor your child’s stress levels, and avoid overscheduling them with too many academic and extracurricular commitments.
- Stay connected. Be aware of what’s going in your child’s life, whether that’s at school, on the soccer fields, with friends, or at doctor’s appointments.
- Be involved, by attending your child’s soccer games, piano recitals or dance performances. This can make a huge difference in a child’s life, by showing them they have your love and support.
- Listen to your child and validate their emotions. When they talk about things that are bothering them, let them talk it out— and answer their questions. Don’t just tell them what to do, tell them “not to worry,” or worse—invalidate what they are feeling.
- Get plenty of support for both you and your child. Healthy adults raise healthy children. Some days we cannot be everything for a child in need. Having some trusted adults in your life who you can consult about a parenting or mental health challenge—or who can be there for your child when you can’t be, providing support, safety and stability—can be invaluable. You don’t have to do it alone.
- Let your child make mistakes. Don’t be a helicopter parent, swooping in to rescue a child after they blow it. Children develop resilience from facing challenges— not avoiding them— and they build self-confidence by working through problems.
- Intervene quickly in the event of any warning signs of mental illness. While a family history of mental illness is only one factor among many that ultimately determine your child’s susceptibility to one or more mental disorders, this information is worth knowing— especially if you begin to notice certain symptoms or behaviors that seem uncharacteristic of your child.
If these do occur, don’t panic. This is not the time to rush to premature judgment, so avoid labelling your child’s condition. Just because they may be exhibiting certain symptoms and behaviors doesn’t mean that they have a bona fide mental health diagnosis— even when mental illness is in your immediate or extended family.
Instead, schedule an appointment with a mental health professional who can diagnose what’s going on. It could very well be just a phase. If it’s more than that, you’ll have a helpful head start in treating it.
About the author: Dr. Beau Nelson heads the Clinical Services department at FHE Health, a nationally recognized behavioral health provider treating addiction and mental health conditions. Learn more about FHE Health’s treatment programs here.