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Tips to Support Healthy Mental & Emotional Development in Your Child

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Children and teens, and their families, are facing a lot of stress and challenges to mental wellness. Is it possible to prevent mental health problems and help kids be resilient during tough times?

Yes! Parents and caregivers have powerful tools to help their children thrive, no matter what life throws their way. Positive experiences and safe, stable relationships help children develop skills they need to manage their emotions, solve problems and develop close connections with others. The process of gaining these critical skills is called healthy mental and emotional development.

Here are 4 key building blocks of healthy mental and emotional development in children, along with tips to reinforce them in your family's day-to-day routines.

1. Safe, stable, nurturing relationships in the family

Relational health, the ability to form safe, stable and nurturing relationships, plays a big role in healthy mental and emotional development. When children feel safe, secure and well connected with their caregivers, they learn to trust others, make friends and manage their feelings. This is essential to mental health.

Ways parents can help:

Create predictable routines.

Structured routines give children a sense of stability and connection.

  • Have meals together. Especially with older kids, family meals are a great time to check in with each other. They may not always be possible with busy schedules, but plan them when you can.

  • Establish a regular bedtime ritual. For young children, a bedtime routine might include a bath, brushing teeth and reading a book together before tuck-in. Bonus: prioritizing sleep makes it easier to deal with everyday pressures.

  • Encourage a homework routine. Planning when and where to work on schoolwork are time management skills that ease stress. It also helps kids find time to practice self-care and more time to connect with family and friends.

  • Create a chores routine: Having age-appropriate chores promotes a sense of responsibility, belonging and contribution to the family. Kids gain confidence in completing tasks, which builds self-esteem.

Plan time for play.

Play lets children explore emotions even before they have the words to express themselves. It also gives them a sense of control in their world. For older kids and teens, planning special family fun time strengthen relationships.

  • Dedicate 10-15 minutes two to three times a week to play with younger kids. Name this special time after the child, like "Roberto's Time."

    • Set rules for one-on-one time. Let your child choose the activity. Put away phones. Make the time unstructured with toys and activities that can promote cooperative play and problem-solving.

    • Focus on fun. The goal is to share joy and connect. Play regularly—not just as a reward for good behavior. Bonds you build in these moments lay ground for healthy relationships in life.

  • Schedule time for family fun. Mark game nights or other family activities on your calendar so that everyone can look forward to relaxing together.

Use positive parenting techniques.

Positive discipline strategies help teach children and teens to manage their behavior in a healthy way.

  • Set limits & consequences. Have clear and consistent rules. Describe these rules in age-appropriate terms that your child or teen can follow. Calmly explain consequences if they aren't followed.

  • Model behavior you want your child to show. When you feel frustrated, try to respond calmly. Instead of saying, "You are driving me crazy," for example, express your actual feelings: "I'm really frustrated right now." This teaches kids to say what they feel instead of critical or hurtful statements.

  • Try "sportscasting." Provide a "play by play" of what you see your child doing. Speak in a neutral or positive tone. This conveys to the child: "I see you, I hear you and I delight in you."

  • Point out positive behavior. Children and teens need to know when they do something wrong—and when they do something good. Praise success and good tries, and be specific. ("Wow, I love how you shared your favorite toy with your friend!" or, "I like how you cleaned up the kitchen after dinnerit's so helpful when you do that.")

2. Open communication

Feeling free to express their thoughts and feelings helps kids process emotions in healthy ways. Open communication also strengthens parent-child bonds. Ways parents can help:

Start "conversations" early.

"Talking" with your baby lays a foundation for language development, as well as expressing feelings.

  • Narrate your actions, describe objects and sing songs. Hearing you talk —the sounds and rhythms of speech, the look on your face and the way you hold them —teach babies about emotional expression.

  • Keep the back-and-forth going. When your baby babbles, coos or flashes you a smile, don't hesitate to respond! Make eye contact and reply with smiles, nods and other facial expressions. This makes your baby feel connected and understood.

Make time to listen.

Make yourself available any time your child wants to talk. Remember that no matter how big their problems seem, what children and teens most want is love and support.

  • Encourage open dialogue by actively listening. Create a supportive and non-judgmental environment so they are comfortable sharing thoughts, feelings and concerns.

    • Remember that any time can be chat time. Chat in the car or when doing dishes together, for example. Take walks together, which offer time to talk plus physical and mental health boosts from exercise and time outdoors.

    • Ask open-ended questions. Instead of asking yes-or-no questions, ask ones that require more detailed answers. These encourage your child to share more thoughts and feelings.

3. Learning to understand & manage emotions

By learning to understand their emotions, children and teens can better manage and avoid being overwhelmed by them. Ways parents can help:

Try emotional coaching.

These steps help kids them learn self-regulation strategies.

  • Acknowledge the emotion. (You might say, "Wow, I see that you have some big feelings now," or "I know you feel bad about having to stop your game you wanted to finish.")

  • Name the emotion. Put your child's emotion into words. ("You look mad/angry/scared/disappointed/frustrated.") For younger children, color zones can help label emotions.

  • Validate the emotion. Let them know that emotions are OK, even if behavior is wrong. ("It makes sense that you feel [EMOTION] because of [REASON].")

  • Meet the need of the emotion.

    • If your child or teen is sad, provide comfort.

    • If they are afraid, provide security.

    • If they are angry, provide kindness and boundaries.

Share coping & "calm down" techniques.

Some tools that can calm body and mind during stressful times:

  • Deep breathing. Breath slowly to calm down body. Try "box" breathing: Breathe in to a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, and breath out to a count of 4.

  • Muscle relaxation. Lie flat and tighten sections of the body from toes to the head. Hold for a few seconds, then release the muscles.

  • Mental imagery. Close eyes and imagine a relaxing, happy and comfortable place.

4. Social relationships at school or in the community

Developing strong, healthy social relationships can provide a support system for your child's mental and emotional development. Ways parents can help:

Foster friendships.

Developing friendships help kids learn to understand and connect with others in positive ways.

  • By the time your child is 2 or 3 years old, consider inviting another child to play. This is a great way for kids to develop and build friendships. Playdates also can lead to trusted connections with other parents, which makes it easier to raise our children.

  • Encourage your older child or teen to invite friends over or meet up with peers at the park or the movies.

Encourage your child to get involved.

Kids who are active in their community will do better in school, find it easier to stay out of trouble and be less likely to have depression or suicidal thoughts.

  • Encourage your child to try extracurricular activities, clubs or sports teams, for example. This helps them discover what they enjoy, meet peers with similar interests and develop friendships.

  • Ask about volunteer opportunities at school or your family's place of worship, for example. By helping others in the community, children and teens learn self-confidence and how to work with others.

Help your child develop empathy, respect and acceptance.

Recognizing the viewpoints and feelings of others helps kids learn to manage their own emotions. Respecting differences also encourages children to embrace their own identities and feel valued for who they are.

  • Introduce your child to diverse cultures and backgrounds through books, movies, music and community events. Discuss different perspectives and feelings in various situations.

  • Let them see you treat everyone with kindness, regardless of differences.

Connect with teachers & community leaders.

This can help to stay informed about your child's healthy mental development and any challenges they may be facing.

  • Keep in touch with teachers, school counselors and other adults in your child's life. Work together to address any concerns.

  • Talk with your child's pediatrician to discuss whether they may need more support.

More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright @ 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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