Students flourish in environments that are predictable, safe, and consistent. One way to ensure this remains steady across settings is to support the parents and caregivers who are in our students’ homes! Caregivers play an important role in supporting and encouraging habits that promote mental wellness; however, understanding how to do that can be difficult! That being said, this one’s for you, parents and caregivers! Read on for tips to build relationships, create boundaries, foster independence, and teach healthy habits to build resiliency and encourage mental wellbeing. These skills will improve caregiver/child relationships while creating a more engaging and peaceful environment at home!
1. Know the Signs
We know that early intervention is key to setting up our students for success! We also know that many kids show initial signs of stress, overwhelm, or mental health struggles in the space they feel safest. For a good number of students, that place is their home. Still, as we watch the numbers of youth suffering from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation rise, there is an average delay between onset of symptoms and treatment of 11 years (Mental Health First Aid, 2020). This delay is likely caused by a number of factors, a few of which may be: stigma surrounding mental illness, lack of accessibility to supportive services, or not knowing the signs. This is why it is imperative that caregivers learn to recognize signs of mental health struggles.
There are a lot of behavioral ups and downs that will take place over the course of a child’s lifetime and it can be hard to differentiate between developmentally appropriate shifts and behaviors and signs of trouble. With that being said, we can increase our level of support by noticing and exploring the following changes in behavior (especially if they come out of nowhere and don’t get better over a period of a few weeks):
New or worsening memory problems
Difficulty focusing or staying on task
Somatic symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, etc.
Sudden and ongoing sleep problems with no clear medical cause
Increased worries that affect their quality of life
Poor self-care (not showering, brushing teeth, etc.)
Feelings of hopelessness
Now, I am a parent too, so I know that some of those might just seem like typical phases and that’s true! Not showering and brushing teeth without prompting? There have been times when that has been an ongoing struggle at our house! Still, it’s important to notice changes in behavior and take time to check in with your child to see how they are doing. Our goal is to stay as aware as we can. This caregiving job is not an easy one so give yourself grace.
2. Intentional Connection
Families are busier than ever and creating time to connect can feel impossible! However, feeling safe and connected during mentally healthy times sets the stage for a safe space to return to when things get tough. Try some of the following strategies for building intentional connection into your routines:
Have a weekly household meal together! Some families may have the ability to do more than just once a week and that is fantastic, but if that’s not feasible for you, that’s okay! Start with one meal a week, put phones away, turn off the tv, sit together at the table, and enjoy one another’s company. This can be a great opportunity to check in with one another by asking questions such as, “what was your high and low for the week?”
Create a morning or evening routine that invites family time. This might include a simple greeting and encouraging phrase – at our house, we give each other hugs and say, “today is going to be a great day!” as we all run off to our cars and buses! This might be a night time prayer, story, or exchange of gratitudes – “what went well today?” Remember, it doesn’t have to be an extended period of time. The predictability of the routine and the comfort of authentic connection is a fantastic place to start.
Notice and recognize efforts as well as results! It is easy for me, as a parent, to fall into constantly noticing what hasn’t been done around the house. I have to intentionally stop, notice, and acknowledge what is going well. Did they hang their backpacks up without prompting? Put their dishes in the dishwasher? Help a sibling? Acknowledge those positives!!
Play together! Could you have a monthly game night? Do you like to go for walks around the neighborhood or play a sport? Perhaps they could introduce you to a video game or activity they love! Play and laughter are powerful ways to connect and destress!
3. View Behaviors as Stress Responses
Understanding the stress response in the brain and body can empower parents to connect with their children in a way that creates lasting change. Learn what is happening in the brain when you or your child are stressed and discover how to build relationships, create space for regulation, and utilize natural consequences for a more peaceful home.
When we experience stress, our autonomic nervous system kicks in to protect us by either fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Our kids respond in the same way and may not understand what is happening. This can lead to feelings of shame, depression, or overwhelm. Talk to your kids about what stress is, how to work through it or use it to their advantage (not all stress is bad), and help them learn to listen to their bodies so they can anticipate when they might need to relieve some stress!
We can also help our students develop resilience and mental wellness by not saving them from the natural consequences of a stress response that causes
harm. This does not mean that we leave them alone. We actually do the opposite. We sit beside them, validate that this feels hard, and help them to repair any ruptures that may have occurred. If, for example, our child has thrown things and hit their sibling in a time of high stress, we, first, get both children to a safe space.
We help them regulate their nervous system by modeling coping skills that have been practiced in calmer times. This may mean we take big deep breaths, give them a hug or a stuffed animal, or let them draw their feelings. After the child is regulated, take time to hear their perspective and validate their feelings. Validating their emotions does not mean you condone aggressive behavior. It simply means that you see that they are hurting and you are there to help. Finally, you work together to repair harm. In this instance they may need to clean up any messes they created and then work to connect with their sibling in a positive way. An easy way to remember this process is to think of Dr. Bruce Perry’s 3 Rs – Regulate, Relate, Reason!
4. Teach, Model, and Practice Coping Skills
Learning how to relieve stress at an early age creates habits that can last a lifetime! The earlier we talk to our kids about using breath, exercise, laughter, creativity, connection, and affection to help reduce stress, the more likely they are to turn to those strategies automatically in the future!
Practice these coping skills together when everyone is calm and reflect on how it makes you feel! Model this by verbally expressing your frustrations or stress and then state what you’re going to do about it! Practice when everyone is regulated and build up to using this strategy in times of conflict. For example, after a tough day at work, you might come home and say, “today was really hard. I feel stressed and angry. I’m going to go for a walk to feel better.” This is a really helpful way for our kids to see that we have hard days too and that we need tools to destress! They learn so much from watching us to do the work!
5. Provide Structure and Facilitate Independence
One of the greatest things we, as caregivers, can do for our children is to create clear expectations. We create rules with non-negotiables and others with opportunities for compromise. What does that look like? Expectations are modeled, taught, and practiced. There are many times when we have to revisit what expectations are and/or what they look like. Non-negotiables are also taught and it is understood that there is no exception to those rules. Still, it is important to offer our children choice and facilitate their independence so that is where our opportunities for compromise come into play. Children can be taught to ask for compromise in some situations. This is a skill that needs to be developed so we practice it! First, teach the child to ask, “can there be a compromise?” If the answer is yes, they must then present their proposal. For example, if bedtime is at 9 but your child is in the middle of something, they may respond to your bedtime prompt with, “can we compromise? Can I have 15 minutes to finish this?” You might say, “How about 10?” This is a quick way to teach self advocacy and at times, how to navigate disappointment.
Here are some examples:
The last, but most important thing we can do for our child is to take care of ourselves. Parenting can be a thankless and tiring job. Caring for yourself is not selfish, it is necessary for quality parenting. Take a few moments to check in with yourself and notice how you are feeling. Are you carrying tension? In your shoulders? Your jaw? Try to check in regularly and attend to that stress so you can be your best self! A quick way to get started is to integrate movement and/or breath into your daily routine. It doesn’t have to be a lot – just a walk around the house and two minutes of deep breathing can release the stress hormones from your body and when done repeatedly can even begin to change your brain! If you aren’t familiar with any deep breathing activities, give this one a try!
Caring for the mental well-being of our children is a big job. When we create structure and safety at home while building capacity to recognize and navigate stress and other big emotions, we are setting our children up for success. Sometimes our kids need more than just us and that’s okay too! Ask for help. Reach out to your school social worker or school counselor to find local resources or check out psychologytoday.com to find a therapist close to you. We live in times of high stress, constant stimuli, and very little down time. We must be mindful of how that affects our children, their development, and their mental health. By intentionally tending to mental health in the home just as we do physical health, we become part of the solution!