Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of Curious Neuron or @curious_neuron, Host of the Curious Neuron Podcast and Co-Founder of Wondergrade
As parents, we all want to protect our children’s health including their mental health. As we discovered in part 1 of this series on emotional learning, our childhood shapes how we cope with our emotions. This is called emotion regulation and is the ability to manage our emotions both internally and externally and has been shown to greatly influence our mental health.
It is important to notice any changes in your child’s behavior, mood and habits. If, for instance, your child alway sleeps well and suddenly struggles with sleep, it is important to see if this might be linked to anything emotional. It doesn’t automatically mean they are struggling with their mental health. It simply means that something might be causing this.
Any changes in what brings them joy or their level of motivation can also be a sign of some emotional struggles. If they used to enjoy seeing their friends, or if they used to enjoy playing soccer and no longer want to go, you might want to see if there are some anxieties attached to this. Always approach it from a place of curiosity and compassion!
There are lots of scientific studies that point to 3 important factors that can help protect our child’s mental health (and ours!).
Below are 3 ways you can protect your child’s mental health:
In as little as 1 week, taking 2-3 min to express gratitude can influence your mental health. Start by trying it yourself. At the end of each day answer this question…”What am I grateful for? When I first started doing this I often didn’t have anything to write. Or I would write “I am grateful for my kids”. Forcing myself to answer this question every day led to me being more aware of little things that happened during my day. A loving hug from one of my 3 kids. Getting extra cuddles with my kids at night. Little moments that I was taking for granted began to stand out and bring me moments of joy throughout my day. I talk about this in detail in a Curious Neuron Podcast Episode here.
This is why practicing gratitude can help our children reframe their day and moments that help “fill their cup”. This is why it can influence our mental health. Rather than trying to find a bigger picture that will bring us happiness, we see the small things that are right in front of us.
It is often easier to feel compassionate for others than it is for ourselves. However, many studies have suggested that self-compassion greatly influences our mental health. When our child says “Why am I the only one that sucks at math!!??”, we can remind them that many people struggle with math. Struggling with something means we need to work at it. These are all skills and any skill can be worked on and improved.
The main point of self-compassion is realizing that we are not alone. I interviewed a researcher that stated “the number one thing we can do to improve our mental health is work on self-compassion”. You can listen to this Curious Neuron Podcast episode here. We often fall in vicious cycles of self-blame and negative self-talk (even as parents!). Modeling self-compassion can help our kids learn how to maintain a more positive inner voice and to see themselves as a small part of this big world. We are never alone in our experiences and struggles!
About 67% of adults have experienced an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). These are experiences such as neglect, abuse or household dysfunction (a parent with mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration, divorce etc). Having only one ACE increases our chances of both mental illness and physical illness in adulthood. This might be alarming to many parents, however, what we have learned through research is there are ways to heal or repair the damage caused by an ACE.
Dr. Bruce Perry talk about this so eloquently in his book “What happened to you”. I chatted with Dr. Perry in a recent podcast episode here where we chatted about the power of community and connectedness. Even if someone has experienced trauma or an ACE, having a sense of community and connecting with others can contribute to their healing. If your child has experienced trauma or an ACE and you can’t access a healthcare professional, part of their healing journey can include being part of a team or organization. If you want to protect their mental health, belonging to a team or organization is also a powerful tool.
In the last post of this emotional learning series, we will discuss 3 important emotion regulation skills your child can apply to learn how to cope with their emotions and avoid internalizing them.
Meet Dr. Cindy Hovington
Cindy Hovington is a mom of 3 and has a doctorate degree in Neuroscience from McGill University. She is the Founder of Curious Neuron, an online science-based resource focused on emotional learning and mental health in kids of all ages. Curious Neuron has a community of over 129,000 parents on Instagram (@curious_neuron) and recently launched their YouTube channel. She is the host of the Curious Neuron Podcast, a top parenting podcast in Canada, the US and the UK. She is also the co-founder of Wondergrade, an app that helps children ages 3-8 develop healthy emotional coping skills. You can try the app free for 2 weeks here or visit wondergrade.com. Dr. Hovington is a regular parenting expert on CJAD800 and has been highlighted in Montreal Times, Today’s Parent, and the Bump. She has worked with companies such as Pampers, Airbnb and Pok Pok.