A significant part of our children’s lives where we, as parents, can help them thrive is in the area of mental health. Mental health connects with every other component of our health, including our emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual health. Each of these has a profound impact on the other. If one is out of balance, our children’s mental health can tip off-center. Therefore, we must work to keep each of these components in our children’s lives in balance.
We are engaged in a spiritual battle for our children’s minds. Just looking around at our society today, it’s easy to recognize there’s a war for our minds. There is questionable content at every turn in books, movies, and music. Questionable morals and ethics abound. Practices that the Bible stands against are becoming the norm. But why is such a battle being waged on the minds of our kids? It’s because something so important is at stake—their souls.
The battle for our kids’ minds is similar to the fight against germs. Researchers have discovered that if you attack germs directly, it strengthens the germs. However, if the body’s immune response to the germs is supported, only then can the germs be defeated. It’s critical to teach the body how to fight the germs to overcome them. We battle against sin in much the same way. Attacking sin through behavior will only make it stronger and more powerful. If the counterattack starts in the heart, by learning to love God, then a natural response to sin is created, and we can overcome it. Our spiritual health drives our mental health.
Create a life where you and your kids can find peace amid the chaos. We can be resilient to stress, disappointments, failures, and trials by clinging to the anchor that is Christ Jesus. Mental health, at its core, starts here.
Mental Health: Creating mental resilience and a sense of wellbeing that impacts how a person feels, thinks, and behaves.
Mental health is all about how a person feels, thinks, and behaves. It’s about emotional, cognitive, and behavioral well-being.
Mental health is a person’s ability to navigate the ups, downs, and unexpected moments in life. People with good mental health can maintain healthy relationships with others—resolving conflict, communicating, and processing rejection, disappointment, and a variety of other emotions. Understanding these emotions and processing them in healthy, positive ways can help a person to respond rather than to react to a situation. People who have good mental health engage with life by using a hopeful and optimistic mindset.
To think of it another way, we’ve all seen the cartoons where a character’s thoughts pop up inside of cloud-shaped thought bubbles. Imagining our and our children’s ideas as thought bubbles can be a great way to examine what is happening inside our minds at any given moment and can provide us with power over negative thoughts.
Every day, each of us has tens of thousands of thought bubbles. Some bubbles seem to pop and disappear almost immediately, while others hang around for a very long time. Some thought bubbles eventually make it out of our mouths and form words. Mental health is about learning essential disciplines as we manage our numerous thought bubbles.
One of the ways we can manage our thought bubbles is to direct them. Yes, you and your children can tell your thoughts which way to go!
A great example from Scripture is Philippians 4. In this chapter, Paul says to think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise. When we choose themes like these to think on, our thought bubbles float in a healthy direction. But when we choose thought themes that are untrue, dishonorable, impure, or ugly, our thought bubbles follow an unwholesome track.
The themes of our thoughts are impacted by what we choose to think on. That’s why your children need a regular dose of “vitamin O” (optimism). Optimism is not about wishful thinking or hiding your head in the sand when things around you are challenging. Optimism is about holding on to the hope that something good can come from our circumstances, even when the situation looks grim.
Having God rule our lives doesn’t mean hard times will vanish. Sometimes things get better, but even if they don’t, God walks with us in our pain. Our troubles are “light and momentary” (2 Corinthians 4:17), considering God’s plans for eternity.
For their mental, spiritual, relational, and emotional health, your kids need to know that God will never leave them to face life on their own.
Mental health is vital to the way families function. The family environment can play a crucial role in creating positive mental health for each family member, especially children. Relationships within our family help give us a sense of worth and value. As we engage with our family, we learn how to understand each other. These interactions with our families create emotional intelligence and deeper connections with them, and with others outside the home.
The experiences we have with our family give us insight into other experiences, opinions, and mental health. We learn how to be open to the differences between people and how to navigate those differences so that we can connect with them. These experiences teach us how to be confident enough to articulate what is happening in our thought bubbles and to understand what is happening in the thought bubbles of others.
From a spiritual perspective, mental health comes from being aware that we are all children of God, and we each have important roles. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to other members of our family, assessing whether we are the best or the worst at something. Instead, we should notice the importance and value of each person in our home. Our kids need to feel loved and accepted for who they are at home, not threatened by the idea that they may not be the best at a particular skill or talent. It’s always good to compete and to strive to get better at something, but our kids should do this for personal growth, not to find value in the world.
As you share life’s experiences as a family—whether it be resting together on the Sabbath or sharing a camping trip—that togetherness will create aspects of mental health that will positively impact the life of your kids. When you are mentally healthy as a family, you desire a balance of rest and activity. When that balance is disturbed, your mental health can tip off-center as well.
To be able to help our kids have mental health, we as parents need to have positive mental health first. Imagine a flight attendant on an airplane. When they do their safety demonstration with the oxygen masks, they always instruct you to put your mask on first and then help your kids. The same goes for mental health. Parents must work on themselves having good mental health first so that we can teach our children to do the same. Glasses can’t be filled from an empty pitcher, and neither can our kids be filled if we have nothing to pour into them.
The following is a list of several things that contributes to positive mental health in our children:
The following factors may contribute to mental illness in children:
The factors listed above can compound each other and impact our experiences and relationships. Most mental illness shows up in people who are 12-21 years old. Mental illness can occasionally have a childhood-onset, but most appear in this timeframe of a person’s life. Having a foundation of good mental health within a family can help to set a child on the path of positive mental health as they reach this age.
Physical Health: Ensuring that your body is as healthy and strong as possible by providing sufficient exercise, sleep, and nutrients.
Proper physical health can be a significant contributor to good mental health. Studies confirm that being physically active has multiple benefits, such as:
Physical health prepares your child’s body to respond as best it can to the demands, experiences, disappointments, successes, emotions, and failures of life. Being physically fit means exercising, getting sufficient rest, and eating the right food. It goes beyond appearances to genuinely taking care of the body God gave you and using it for its intended purpose.
Make time for a consistent 10-minute workout each day. Try some push-ups, sit-ups, stretching, biking, hiking, walking, running, or swimming. The great thing about exercise is that you can mix it up! By doing these activities with your child, you positively model the value of the physical activity, and you will both feel energized afterward.
When it comes to sleep, the majority of families are running on fumes. Almost all of us could benefit from more rest. The difference in how our bodies and brains function when we don’t sleep enough is noticeable.
Sleeping well and allowing the body to rest is an essential part of physical fitness that most people devalue. God encourages rest, and He created sleep to refuel and balance us. While we sleep, our brains solve problems, store memories, and help the body to repair itself. The National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations for the amount of sleep we need differs by age.
Help your kids think about their bodies like a one-of-a-kind sportscar. The catch is that it’s the only car they will get to own—ever. They would want to take excellent care of it by getting all the required maintenance and putting in the best fuel they could find. Remind them that our bodies are just like that car, and the food we eat is our fuel.
If you eat for fuel (to give your body the right nutrition), you are likely to make good food choices. If you eat in response to emotions and to make yourself feel good, you will probably not make the best decisions for your body. For some kids, food becomes an escape or an addiction to try to cope with the problems of life. Help kids see your refrigerator as a gas station for the body. When they put the right fuel in, their body will thank them by running well. Eating a balanced and healthy diet makes a huge difference in how his or her brain will function.
Emotional Health: Ensuring that we are emotionally resilient during the ups and downs of life.
Emotional health deals with developing positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, pride (the right kind), inspiration, awe, and love, and even things like interest and amusement.
Being focused on promoting emotional health is an active choice we must make. What sorts of intentional decisions can you make to improve your family’s emotional health?
These are all things we can choose to do that not only set the tone for our own lives but set an example for our children as well.
Emotional health is also reinforced by belonging to and serving something bigger than ourselves. Believers in Jesus understand that this “something” isn’t just belonging to a club or a movement. The most important group we can link ourselves to is the Body of Christ. That means not only having faith in Him for our salvation but also being part of a local body of believers where members can offer love and mutual support.
Finally, one of the most important things we can do to help our children enjoy good emotional health is to teach them to talk about their feelings. That’s something that a lot of us don’t do well. Your children will learn from you, whether it is safe for them to talk about their feelings. Make your home a place of emotional safety, and model for them how to talk about your inner life in healthy ways.
Relational Health: Fostering healthy relationships with our families and others outside of our homes.
The foundations for relational health are positive connections with family, friends, and community. Research tells us that quality relationships are not only one of the best antidotes to the downs of life, but they’re one of the single most reliable ups. God didn’t create us to live detached from others. Each of us thrives in a healthy, nurturing community. Your children need this for good relational health.
Being connected to a local body of believers can be a massive advantage to our family. Children need the opportunity to play with other kids and interact with peers. They need the chance to interact with older, wiser individuals who can serve as teachers, mentors, and role models. They can also benefit spiritually from worship and learning about God through Sunday School or church services. These can all help fill a profound relational need for moms and dads as well as their kids.
There are lots of ways you can encourage your child to develop her relational muscles.
Spiritual Health: Having a strong faith in God and nurturing a relationship with Him to keep our spiritual lives vibrant.
Research confirms that strong faith leads to positive outcomes in mental health, relationships, and overall life management. Scientists have also discovered that consistent and robust pursuit of faith leads to social skills in kids. They become contributors in God’s kingdom rather than passive consumers. Spiritual health is about having a relationship with God and learning to serve and love others.
What does it mean to be spiritually healthy? Life will continuously be shaking and stirring your child’s soul, and the world is relentlessly trying to grab his or her attention through an ever-increasing menu of options. Spiritual health involves appropriately directing one’s spiritual attention, even amid turmoil and distraction.
Where does your child’s attention shift, in good times or in bad? Toward self, toward others, toward insecurities, toward power, toward control—or God? It may seem a bit circular, but attention follows decisions, while decisions follow what captivates attention. Spiritual health means that your child’s attention points toward discovering what it means to be a child of God, resulting in peace and hope.
God wants us to discover who He has created us to be. He is always beside us, wanting to connect, guide, strengthen, comfort, and mold. The invitation to you and your child to connect with the Holy Spirit is open ALL the time.
Make each day count with your kids. Every action you take can contribute to your child’s mental health. Be sure to share meals, laugh together, pray together, invest time in each other, and have conversations. Structure your family toward this mentally healthy environment.
Incorporate the 7 Traits of Effective Parenting into your parenting skills. These are the building blocks that form a child’s mental health. The likelihood of mental illness goes down substantially, and mental health improves when there is balance. These seven traits are things that parents can work on in practical ways.
Make each day count when it comes to working on having positive mental health within your family, and you will reap the rewards over time.
If you have questions about mental health or need to talk to a counselor, please call Focus on the Family’s counseling hotline at: 1-855-771-HELP (4357). You can also visit our Mental Health Resources page.
© 2020 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.
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As vice president of the Parenting and Youth department, Danny oversees Focus’ initiatives that equip parents to disciple and mentor the next generation, so that they can thrive in Christ.