Every day it feels like we read another news report about the mental health crisis among children and youth, as well as how depression, anxiety, and suicide rates are getting worse. Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General went so far as to issue an advisory to protect the mental health of youth. Things seem bad, and for many young people, they truly are.
The world is changing, and sometimes it can feel like we’re barely keeping our heads above water, whether we are parents, guardians, or vulnerable children just trying to figure out our place in the world. These feelings have been exacerbated through the recent pandemic and other major world events, which often make everything seem worse, further straining our sense of mental wholeness.
We need to look at how we’re teaching our children to process and navigate the new world in which we live. This process starts with us as parents and guardians; how we manage our mental health is a model for how our children will manage their mental health. Research reflects that the unmanaged stress of an adult becomes the unmanaged stress of the child. So, one of the best ways you can help your child with their mental health is by working on your own mental health.
Why? Our mind drives who we are: how we think, feel, and choose. Our mind drives how we wake up in the morning and start the day; how we show up throughout the day; how we interact with our family, friends, teachers, and environment; and how we manage the good and bad things that happen to us. Our mind drives how our body makes cells, impacting our biological health and how we absorb nutrition from our food. The mind controls everything to do with our “aliveness.” We can go for three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without oxygen, but we don’t even go for three seconds without using our mind!
If the mind is the driving force of our “aliveness” as human beings, we should be putting a massive amount of energy into understanding and developing the skills of mind-management to help both ourselves and our children manage the vagaries of life. A child with underdeveloped mind-management tends to be more vulnerable to intense feelings of confusion and be overwhelmed as they attempt to process what they’re exposed to, because they don’t have the mental skills necessary to understand what is happening to them or to communicate what they are going through. It’s our job as parents, caretakers, and educators to help them navigate a world that can easily feel scary and overwhelming. And one of the best ways we can do this is by giving them the gift of mind-management.
In my upcoming book, How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess, which is now available for preorder, I offer a scientific, evidence-based first step in dealing with the crisis in children’s mental health through mind-management. I give you easy-to-use, simple ways you can start teaching your child how to manage their mind so that as they grow, they can live their best life. Additionally, along the way, you may learn a thing or two about how to manage your mind so that you, can also live a life of resilience, peace, and joy!
One great way to start practicing mind management with your child is to teach them empathy from youth. At its core, empathy is the ability to sense the emotions of someone else. Encouraging empathy in our children means teaching them how to think beyond themselves and focus on what another person is feeling or experiencing.
Yet teaching our children empathy is not only important for social cognition and social interaction. It also helps children build their identity and develop a sense of their own personhood as they learn to interact with the world around them. In fact, empathy and identity work together and can help a child learn how to create and respect healthy boundaries in their relationships. Eventually, your child will learn to understand what they need and, in turn, recognize and respect what other people need as well.
Empathy is learned through social interaction and communication. We all have the ability to mirror the people we interact with, but to truly empathize, we must learn how to cultivate our understanding so we can truly connect with others. We must learn to “tune in” on a deeper level.
Of course, we will never be able to fully understand what someone else’s perspective or experience is, but we can learn to draw a connection to our own experience and use this to get a sense of what someone else might be going through. And, the younger we learn how to do this, the better we will understand ourselves and connect with other people as we grow. Empathy means imagining, as close as we can get, what someone is experiencing, which helps us relate to and connect with others on a deeper level.
Empathy also improves our communication. It is a form of interaction that uses emotions and nonverbal communication instead of language. In the same way that language works, where someone says something and we respond, empathy involves experiencing another person’s emotion and connecting with that experience.
It is however important to remember that empathy takes time to understand and develop, even for adults! First, it is important to help your child try understand what empathy is. Here are ways you can explain empathy to your child and help them learn how to be more empathetic:
- You can say something like “sometimes something happens to someone else, but we feel sad for them even though it didn’t happen to us. Has your friend ever hurt themselves and started crying and you felt sad for them even though you didn’t hurt yourself? Empathy means you are trying to see how you would feel if those things happen to you and how you would want someone to respond to you.”
- Remember that a big part of trying to show your child how to be empathetic starts with you as parents practicing empathy—children watch what we do and learn from us.
- Cultivating empathy also means helping your child cultivate their unique identity. It is important to help them understand that they are different from other people and may experience the world in a different way and have different feelings. When you validate your child’s experience and show them empathy, they will begin to understand what it means to have empathy for others. For example, say your child is afraid of your cat. You can say something like, “Are you feeling scared of the cat? Cats can be scary. I can hold your hand while you are close to it.” This shows you are validating their fear—you are not telling them to not be scared. You are letting them know that you see them and what they are experiencing and that you will be by their side to support them even though you are not afraid of the cat. Or, say your children are fighting and one child makes the other one cry. Rather than forcing your child to say sorry (especially when they are younger and may not be able to grasp the full meaning behind an apology), try to teach them to feel empathy. Try to say something like “Look, James, Tina is really sad and is crying. She is very hurt because you took her favorite toy. Can we try to see if we can make her feel better?” Empathy generally comes when people connect through thoughts, emotions, and actions, so encouraging your child to try do this instead of just getting angry at them will help them understand why what they did was hurtful, not just that it was “wrong” or “bad”.
- An extremely important part of cultivating empathy in young children is to help them learn and appreciate diversity at a young age. This means exposing them to different ideas, worlds, and people, and showing them these differences are good and not something to be afraid of.