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Doctor's corner Supporting your child's mental health

Portsmouth Herald - 6/18/2017

Much is discussed about taking care of your child's physical health, from tips on diet and fitness to immunizations and safe sporting equipment, but what about mental health? Helping children feel good about themselves and teaching them how to manage their emotions can aid them all their lives.

Help your child build confidence

Not every child is going to have that bold, outgoing personality that can't wait to speak up in class or take the stage for the class play. But every child can learn to feel confident about own self-worth and unique gifts. With a good foundation, confidence can grow. One of the easiest ways to build confidence is to encourage any special interests or attributes your child has.

People to tend to feel more confident about things they enjoy so if your child loves to draw, read, play sports, or dance, foster these interests. Positive experiences build self-esteem. However, it's important not to over-emphasize these activities. Building confidence is about letting the child explore something he or she has fun doing; it should never become an obligation. Children should not be pushed to achieve a certain level of excellence unless they themselves set that bar.

If you are not sure where children's interests lie, ask them and let them try a few different things. Stepping out and trying new things is also confidence building. Remember, if they are happy doing an activity, it does not matter whether they are a stand-out or not. They feel good about it and that is most important.

Confidence can also be encouraged by commending children for good deeds. If they are good at helping with household chores, taking care of pets, or being thoughtful of their grandparents, commenting on those attributes can build confidence by showing them that they have important attributes. There's a saying, "When you're digging a gold mine, you don't dig for dirt. You dig for gold. So why should it be any different with kids?"

Remember, recognizing a child's talent or contribution is not about lavishing praise, but rather to be observant and encouraging. For example, don't say "You are the best artist!" but rather "I can see all the effort you have put into that picture! Good job!" When it comes to commenting on deeds, remarks such as "I really appreciate the help around the house; you did a great job dusting for me" work well because they are honest and specific. Rather than praising a child for feeding the dog, say "Being kind to animals is important. I'm glad you remember to take care of Shiloh."

Chores are a good way to build confidence as they give children tasks to learn and master and teach them that they can and should help contribute toward running the family home. They learn that their help is important.

Confidence can also be built by letting children take small risks. Maybe it's walking the dog for the first time or jumping into the deep end of the pool. Maybe it's something they half want/half fear, like trying out for the clarinet solo. Whatever the challenge, being brave enough to try can help instill confidence. If they succeed, they know the risk was worth the effort. If they fail, they learn that they were brave enough to try and that failure is something to overcome and learn from.

Parents can also show by example that it's all right to try new experiences, and that it's OK if you have some ups and down. For example, if a parent struggles to run a 5K for the first time, the child learns that it is OK that the parent did not win the race. The important thing was that mom or dad did not give up and finished what he or she set out to accomplish.

Overcoming shyness

Shyness can be closely related to confidence. Encouraging a skill or interest can help a child overcome shyness. Positive feedback for achievements can make a child feel more confident and outgoing. Children may meet others with similar interests and find that it is easier to talk to other children with whom they already have something in common. If your child loves quieter pursuits, such as reading or drawing, see if your library has a book club or if your child might volunteer there. Artists might join the local art society, see if they can help with an art show, or if the school theater department needs scenery painters.

Communication is key

Children need to know that parents are always available if they need to talk or want support. Make time to talk about their day and hear about any concerns or worries. Younger children usually open up more easily, but with older children parents may need to "read between the lines." Older children may also be less apt to sit down for a chat, and often share more at informal moments, such as while doing chores or in the car or maybe taking a walk. Make sure these opportunities are available.

When children do present concerns, resist the impulse to rush in and fix things. Take their worries seriously because they are important to them, but at the same time, guide them toward finding their own solutions. Obviously, serious issues may need parental intervention, but day-to-day concerns can provide great opportunities for building your child's life skills.

For example, if your child is worried about talking with a teacher about test scores, maybe do some role playing about approaches he or she might take. If your daughter is concerned because she missed a key play at yesterday's softball game, talk about how other famous athletes have overcome errors. Are there skills she needs to work on or was it a fluke that she just needs to shake off?

Helping your child look at the incident from a practical perspective takes the emotion out of it and lets children see the steps they need to take to improve for future games.

Find outlets for outbursts

We all experience times of rage and frustration, and children are no exception. Many parents have had to put younger children in time out until such fits pass. But older children also need to learn how to manage emotions when they are running high. Talking things through with a parent is certainly advised, but sometimes emotions need to cool down before talking can take place. Or, what if a parent is not home? Encourage your child to expend energy and frustration at the same time - kick a soccer ball, hit a baseball, run around the yard. When he or she cools down, physically and emotionally, then take a look at the problem. Teach your child that it's OK to say "I need a moment," go let off steam, then have a discussion.

At the same time, there may be times when physically burning off frustration is not possible. Teach your children that taking deep breaths while counting to 10 or breathing deeply while picturing a favorite tranquil scene, can also help them get their emotions under control.

The important thing is for children to learn how to vent emotion without harming themselves, others or property. Of course, this can be difficult for a child to learn, so the help of a counselor can prove helpful.

Encourage imagination

Today's children often lead very intense lives. Even from a young age, much of their time is scheduled, whether they are at school, sports practice, clubs, work, or fitting in increasingly heavy loads of homework. The children of the '70s, '80s and '90s had much more free time to engage in unstructured play and to let their imaginations take flight. Encouraging this free time is more than just indulging a whim of childhood. Letting the imagination flourish can be important to children's mental health, and can also nurture their natural gifts of creativity and innovation.

During imaginary play, children learn how to face conflicts and fears as they battle imaginary foes or rescue pets or friends from disasters. They are the heroes, the problem solvers, the leaders. This type of play helps make them feel stronger, braver, bolder and helps teach them they can be what and who they want to be.

Even when children are not actively playing - maybe they are just watching clouds or focused on bugs crawling in the grass - they are learning and growing. The mind is thinking, pondering, observing. Many of our greatest inventions have come from times of letting the mind wander like this, and many of our greatest geniuses learned this from time spent as a child engaged in simply being one with the universe.

Let children have time to indulge their imagination, and time to do nothing at all. Such time may be rewarding for parents as well.

-Dr. David Schopick is a psychiatrist in private practice in Portsmouth. He is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in adult, adolescent and child psychiatry and has been serving patients in the Greater Seacoast area and beyond for more than 25 years. For information, call 431-5411 or visit www.schopickpsychiatry.com.

 
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