A Conversation About Children's Mental Health

In the past week, 2 major celebrities have passed away as a result of suicide. Yet, in our country, mental illness is still considered a taboo topic in many circles. It's important to be aware and educated about mental illness at all stages of life, starting with our kids.

While the frequency of conversation surrounding mental illness is trending upward, there is still work to be done. It’s vital to ensure that all individuals who are diagnosed with a mental disorder have open lines of communication and resources available. May is Mental Health Awareness month, and children and adolescents are largely impacted by mental health disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders begin by the age of 14. This startling statistic can lead us to ask, what do we do with this information?

A Conversation About Children's Mental Health

The Unique Face of Mental Illness

First, we must acknowledge that each person diagnosed with a mental illness has their own unique situation. Each individual has their own personal set of circumstances that has lead to a diagnosis. There is not a, “one size fits all” solution when it comes to mental illness and how to help those affected by it. We must continue to facilitate dialogue in various aspects of mental health, and talk about the countless scenarios that our kids may be up against. Mental Health Month raises awareness around trauma, and the impact it can have on the wellbeing of children, families, and the overall community we live in. While mental health disorders can stem from a variety of different causes, we want to spotlight trauma, and how it can influence the state of mental well-being in children.

Related reading: The Hidden Way that Kids Learn Empathy (and how parents can help)

Trauma and Mental Health

Often times, many people don’t consider the state of children’s mental health. This is alarming as children as young as 18 months old can experience a traumatic event and go on to have later behavioral and psychological problems. From being exposed to crime, violence, abuse, or even the loss of a loved one, trauma can stem from a lot of different situations. We’re looking more closely into the impact that trauma can have on the mental state of children and teens.

A Conversation About Children's Mental Health

If you are concerned that your child has been exposed to a traumatic event, specialists have identified specific behaviors to be on the lookout for. If a child you know has recently experienced a traumatic event:

  • Separation anxiety or clinginess toward teachers or caregivers
  • Changes in appetite
  • Decreased interest in and/or withdrawal from friends or family and normal activities
  • Over- or under-reaction to physical contact, sudden movements, and sounds
  • Angry outbursts and/or aggression
  • More frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue
  • Repeatedly recreating the event through comments, drawings, or activity
  • Emotional “numbing,” or expressing no feelings at all about the event

Although trauma is a common underlying cause of mental health issues in children, it is not the only cause. Even infants have a full mental life and are constantly making sense of their interactions with caregivers. As this wonderful article by Lisa Sunbury describes, experiments with babies have shown that they are careful observers of their caregivers' emotions. Although they don't have the emotional skills to understand adult emotions, they often react when they see withdrawal or sadness in their caregivers.

This video illustrates the classic "still face" experiment done to examine how babies respond to a lack of response from a caregiver. If the relationship is "repaired" as in seen in the video, the bond remains, however, if babies experience repreated withdrawal, impacts on their mental health can be seen.

Get Informed

Identifying a problem and ultimately understanding a diagnosis can be overwhelming. This rings especially true when trying to grasp the diagnosis in a child. Where do you start? This is a frequent question that carries a lot of weight. It can be hard to collect your thoughts and know what to ask. Jumo Health is an online suite of resources to educate and empower those dealing with diagnoses. Available are free discussion guide downloads to help steer conversations with your doctor about diagnosis. Depression and Anxiety are just two examples of topics that have a guide available.

A Conversation About Children's Mental Health

In addition, Jumo Connect offers a series of comics and podcasts that explain different diseases, disorders, and conditions. Some of the most relevant include the “Mental Health: Anxiety and Depression podcast.” This follows Gianna, a high school junior who has lived experience of depression and anxiety. It’s a great resource to help kids and teens connect to someone who may be experiencing the same struggles and difficulties in life.

Related reading: National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day

Resources for Children's Mental Health

Another great organization is ZERO TO THREE. They work to ensure that babies and toddlers benefit from early connections that are critical to their well being and development. Children can be resilient when it comes to trauma, but they typically process events different than adults. ZERO TO THREE has developed a great parenting resource on building resilience. It is designed to teach how you can help infants and toddlers to learn to cope with adversity.

A Conversation about Children's Mental Health

Recognizing resilience at four different levels: the individual, the family, the school and caregiving systems, and the larger community. Parents can build their child’s resilience on a daily basis by teaching self-care, emphasizing the positive, building a strong parent-child bond, reading together, encouraging social skills, maintaining a daily routine, nurturing self-esteem, and practicing reflection.

This post contain affiliate links. Purchasing through these links helps support this blog at no added cost to you.

Related Resources:

15 Summer Acts of Kindness for Kids: Ideas for Developing Emotional Intelligence {plus a FREE printable}

{Random acts of kindness for kids to help our youngsters grow in emotional intelligence. Research-backed but easy ideas to bring into the daily summer routine}

I had done what "good moms" do. I signed them up for camps. I enrolled them in summer baseball. I had registered them for vacation Bible school. We had done our reverse bucket list for summer.

I got to the end of May and thought I had a good plan for the summer. Then I realized--I had just set up a world that revolved solely around them. Is this how I want summer to be? Do I want to just be
the "cruise director" of their summer?

Summer Acts of Kindness for Kids
This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing through these links
helps support this blog at no added cost to you.

Or is there space to think of others? Can we incorporate some simple acts of kindness into our routine? What can I do to help them grow in empathy and emotional intelligence this summer?

Related reading: The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude

The Science of Kindness

Summer is the perfect time to capitalize on the extra time to build emotional intelligence. One clear finding we know from research is that it takes a lot of practice and modeling for emotional skills to take hold. From an early age, kids are wired for kindness. Babies as young as 9 months old gravitate toward the "kind" puppet in lab studies. However, for this mindset to continue, it has to be reinforced as kids grow.

The Science of Kindness

Related reading: Kids' Emotional Intelligence: Why Low-Tech Skills are the Key to Success in a High-Tech World

Modeling kindness in our daily lives is one of the best ways to reinforce empathetic thinking. As eloquently pointed out in the book, The Yes Brain, the part of the brain that helps control empathetic thinking is one that can be developed and trained over time. By pointing out the feelings of others and practicing empathetic interactions, this part of the brain becomes stronger in kids. 

Even in our high-tech world, emotional interaction and kindness still matter. It makes for a better world, and research also tells us it helps make kids happier and more successful...even in those high-tech jobs. Although coding computers may one day be automated, skills like communication, empathy, and emotional intelligence will never be perfectly imitated by a robot. These skills are what make us human.

Related reading: Nature and Nurture: The Origins of Compassion

Purpose, not Pressure

I realized the other day that I have 9 summers left with my oldest and 13 left with my youngest until they (presumably) leave the house. Pointing this out, however, is not about feeling pressure to make things perfect all summer; it's about making good use of the free time we have.

So I put together a collection of easy, low-key summer acts of kindness for kids that we can incorporate into our daily routine.

Summer Acts of Kindness for Kids:

  • Kindness rocks--decorate stones and place them in surprising places for people to find
  • Bake cookies or muffins and deliver to local heroes (e.g., police, firefighters, etc.)
  • Donate used books to a nonprofit group like Reach Out and Read, a children's hospital, or children's shelter
  • Make snack bags to give to homeless individuals
  • Participate in Camp Kindness--6 weeks of kindness, empathy-building activities from the Kindness Elves
  • Read books that promote empathy and ask kids a lot of questions about how the characters are feeling (see my Pinterest board for book ideas).
Want more ideas for acts of kindness? Sign up here to receive an expanded printable list FREE:

Kindness-related Resources:

The Yes Brain

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Little Loving Hands--fun crafts given to charity

Perfect for Pinning:

Summer Acts of Kindness for Kids: Ideas for Developing Emotional Intelligence

The Benefits of Summer Camp are Lost When Smartphones Intrude

{The social-emotional benefits of summer camp are clear but what happens when smartphones intrude on the normal camp experience.}

I vividly remember my first experience at sleepaway summer camp as a child. I was in about 4th or 5th grade and it was my first time away from my parents overnight (except for sleepovers at grandparents' and friends' houses). I went with a close friend and even her older sister was there with us.

But...I was homesick. I cried every day of the week-long camp. Although my friends and family had boasted of the benefits of summer camp, they were lost on me. My mood improved somewhat through the week but overall I did not enjoy it much.

Summer Camp in the Age of Smart Phones

Nowadays, kids experiencing feelings like mine at camp might have quick access to a cellphone to call or text their parents.

A new study from C.S. Mott Children's hospital considered how access to smartphones might change the camp experience. The researchers interviewed officials at 331 camps across the U.S. and Canada. The results were both enlightening and a little disturbing.

A Few Advantages of Technology at Camp:

The camp officials pointed out that they did see some advantages to kids having access to technology at camp. Kids could take pictures and create slideshows of their favorite memories, for example. Other times technology was used for entertainment during "downtime" like video game tournaments or music for dance parties.

Related reading: Distracted by Your Device? This Parenting Research Will Change Your Perspective {plus a printable mantra to help}

The Downside to Technology at Camp:

Many of the camp officials, however, reported the downside to kids having technology and internet access at camp. As you might expect, many kids became so immersed in texting and social media that they would not participate fully in camp events or bond with their fellow campers.
One respondent even wrote, campers are “more worried about their phone than the poison ivy bush they’re about to step in.”
One of the more concerning (and sad) consequences of technology at camp was the fact that counselors reported that kids did not want to participate in activities like talent shows or dance parties where videos of them might be taken and posted on social media. The fear of embarrassment was just too much.

Other times, it wasn't the campers but the counselors who found it hard to harness their technology. Some officials noted that counselors sometimes used phones or devices so much that it compromised their duties.

Related reading: Parenting Challenges--Resources to Help You Manage Technology, Foster Kindness and Simpify Life

Emotional Benefits of a Technology Break

There was one encouraging note in the research too. Many officials reported that once teens recovered from the initial shock of having no phone for a few days, they were actually eager for the technology break. They said they felt more relaxed without the pressures of social media comparison.

New research backs this up as well. One study found that pre-teens who spent 5 days in an overnight camp without phones, TV or computer had better skills in reading emotions in facial expressions than a same-age control group who did not attend camp. Of course, it's hard to tease apart whether these emotional benefits resulted solely from lack of screen time, time in nature or a combination of both factors. Nevertheless, the benefits of summer camp without screens are clear.

Related reading: Kids' Emotional Intelligence: Why Low-Tech Skills are the Key to Success in a High-Tech World

Besides the obvious emotional benefits, summer camp can also build a sense of resilience in kids as well. Researchers who study resilience have shown that kids who experience tolerable risk gain skills in coping and identity-formation that stick with them for years. Summer camp offers just this type of tolerable risk as kids take on new physical challenges, make new friends, and cope with unpredictable circumstances.

This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing through these links helps
support this blog at no added cost to you.

I can definitely relate to these benefits. Remember that horrible first camp experience?  A couple of years later I went back and had a blast. What would have that first experience been like if I had a cellphone to call or text my mom every day?

Here's an even more important question: what would that second camp experience have been like if I had the chance to call or text every day on the first trip?

You can probably guess my answer. If I had been tied to technology on that first trip, I probably would have never made that second trip. The experience of homesickness, as difficult as it was, was what made the second trip possible. 

As with many things in life, the challenges and struggles are often what make the subsequent happy experiences so wonderful. Put in child development terms, the coping skills and resilience I learned through that week of homesickness are what made me feel confident enough to handle going back to camp the next time.

The second camp trip I remember just like a scene out of The Parent Trap: cabins with lots of tween girls chatting, camp activities that forced us to get beyond our awkwardness like canoeing, archery and yes, even a camp dance. Those are the skills and memories that live on long after the week of summer camp.

Emotional intelligence: How to Develop the "Soft Skills" Your Child Will Need for Success in Life

{Helping your child develop emotional intelligence might be one of the most important things you can do to ensure their future success}

My older son (3rd grade) has a great social-emotional learning program at his school. Each morning, the class gathers and talks about how each student is feeling (e.g., the Zones of Regulation). Then they usually do a short lesson on some topic related to children's' emotional intelligence such as growth mindset, emotions, dealing with anger, getting along with friends, etc.

One day last week, he mentioned that had talked about empathy. I asked him what empathy was and he said, "it's trying to understand what another person is feeling."

I thought to myself, "great! he seems like he really understands this." While watching a movie later that night, he even said, "I feel so much empathy for that family" about a scene in which the family was in a dangerous predicament.

The next day, we had a new babysitter come over to meet our boys because she was planning to watch them the next day. While she was still present, that same son said, "she's boring."

I was so embarrassed! The girl was new at babysitting and you could tell she was a bit nervous. I couldn't believe my supposedly empathetic son had said that while she was still within earshot. 

I asked him later how he thought that phrase might have made her feel. He was a bit confused at first but then I reminded him that she was meeting all of us for the first time and she was new to babysitting. Then he realized how saying "she's boring" might have hurt her feelings. He said, of course, that he just hadn't thought about that at the time.

I explained that I understood that and we all do silly things like that from time to time. I just wanted him to be aware of it so he could see how he words might hurt other people's feelings. I think he got it.

emotional intelligence

This illustrates one key idea when it comes to the emotional development of kids--it's not a simple linear path. Like many aspects of development, children's' emotional intelligence comes in "fits and starts." They learn some new skill or perspective but then they are put in a new situation and have to re-learn lessons again. It's all part of the process. 

It's a bumpy developmental road, so why should we persist in helping our kids grow in emotional intelligence?

Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

In recent weeks, there have been a number of high-profile articles floating around social media urging us to look beyond STEM skills when considering how best to prepare our kids for the world they will face in the future. Google came out with a big study of their employees and found that the ones that were most successful were not the ones with the best tech skills, but those with “soft” skills like communicating (and listening), being empathetic to co-workers, understanding others’ perspectives and critical thinking.

A Forbes article claimed that “that useless liberal arts degree” is now in high demand in the tech world. Why? Because those with these degrees often understand better how to work with others, understand the needs of customers, and help folks transition in a tech world that is rapidly changing. In other words, for the next generation of work, our kids not only need to know how to code but how to communicate and empathize. Emotional intelligence is now more important than ever before.

It's not all about the workforce, however. We know from our own experience that being kind and empathetic towards others just makes life better and helps make us happier too. Research bears this out. People with higher emotional intelligence tend to be happier and have stronger relationships. Just listen to Dr. Michele Borba, author of the awesome book Unselfie discuss this research. 

If you would like to hear more fascinating talks like this, please join me at the FREE 2018 Positive Parenting Conference on May 1-10. Dr. Borba will be there along with TONS of other wonderful speakers. All free, all online! Sign up HERE    

Emotional Intelligence is a Learned Skill

Unlike walking or talking, which normally develops naturally in a child with little assistance, emotional intelligence must be fostered. The brain development necessary for kids to understand the emotions of others does appear quite naturally, but caring adults must model empathy for it to really flourish.
Related reading: Gift Guide for Raising Kind Kids

You may have noticed this mental shift in your own kids. Ask a 3-year-old how another person feels about something (e.g., their favorite color), the youngster will inevitably answer what their own favorite color is. This type of egocentrism isn’t a fault of your parenting. It’s simply that in a child this young, the part of the brain used to read other’s feelings has not fully developed.

But, ask that same child the same question only a year later and you will likely get a totally different, less egocentric answer. The mental shift is remarkable. Suddenly, your 4-year-old can understand that what you like is different from what she likes. Researchers call this skill Theory of Mind and the video below shows how they test for this development in the lab: 

Pretty amazing, right?

How to Foster Emotional Intelligence

Now that your 4-year-old can actually consider the mind and feelings of others, true empathy and growth in emotional intelligence is possible. Now, our job as parents is just beginning! Like most “soft skills,” emotional intelligence takes modeling and practice. Here are just a few things we parents can do to help:
  • Talk the talk. Our conversations with our kids really matter! Studies show that kids whose parents who discuss how other people might be feeling have better perspective-taking ability than those who don’t. Perspective-taking just means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (the first step in empathy!). If your child sees another child being teased on the playground, ask how you think that makes that child feel. While watching a movie or reading a book, ask your child how the character might be feeling. Little discussions like this can really foster your kid's emotional intelligence. This is why we love sets like Wonder Crate which offers wonderful books and activities specifically designed to promote social-emotional learning. 
Wonder Crate

  • Walk the walk. Conversations about emotions are helpful, but modeling empathy with your kids (and others) is the key to solidifying those brain connections that make empathy a life-long habit. It’s often challenging to show empathy to our kids when they’re behavior is…umm less-than-perfect, but it really does show them how empathy makes them feel. This, in turn, illustrates to them why empathy is important to show to others. In other words, modeling is key. Of course, you can also model EQ with others you interact with as well—spouse, family members, store clerks, etc. Young kids watch everything and absorb all these little interactions during the day.
  • Emotional guidance. In the wonderful book, The Yes Brain, the authors point out that one of the best ways we can foster emotional intelligence is by guiding kids through their own emotions. Our tendency as parents is to solve or fix an issue that is causing our kids’ pain. For emotional issues, however, sometimes the best solution is to guide them through their pain or distress instead of immediately distracting them or trying to get them “back to happy” too quickly. If we allow our kids to feel sad or disappointed, over time, they learn to understand how others feel when they experience these emotions too. Sometimes, it is only through our own pain that we come to truly understand the pain of someone else. This is true for our kids as well.
Related reading: Top 3 Tips for Raising Kind Kids: Realistic Ideas for Parents

Ironically, as our economy shifts to a more high-tech, information-driven model, the need for emotional intelligence only grows. Simply put, computers can automate tech skills, but computers can’t automate emotional interaction
Even as algorithms dictate more of our daily life, its human interaction that still provides meaning to our lives. 
Fostering children's emotional intelligence will not only give them an advantage over the computers, it will make for a kinder, more meaningful world.

Related Resources:

Wonder Crate subscription box that promotes emotional intelligence

Wonder Crate. A subscription/activity box that promotes the development of emotional intelligence with categories like Confidence, Empathy and Mindfulness

Perfect for Pinning:

Emotional intelligence: Why Low-Tech Skills Will be the Key to Success in a High-Tech World