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By Caroline Boudreaux
“Why are you crying?” is something we ask and most of the time receive an answer to, unless someone doesn’t feel like telling us, or they simply don’t know why. This is a common question that parents may ask their children, but most often, it may be to make them stop crying or being sad, rather than understanding why they are feeling like that in the first place. This is one of several examples of instances that parents face when interacting with their children. Sometimes you know why, and other times you don’t. Children can be hard to understand but, then again, so can we, as adults.
While several of these instances may be related to common phases and occurrences in life, they should not be brushed off as insignificant. Parents, in particular, need to take active care to ensure that they have a deep understanding of their child’s mindset and mental make-up in order to enable healthy emotional development. Moreover, the practice of taking good care of one’s mental health must start from childhood and carry on through adolescence and into adulthood, to sustain the positive effects for the long run.
As per the World Health Organization definition, good mental health is essential for a person to achieve their full potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, and work productively to be able to contribute to their community. Previously a stigmatised subject, mental health awareness is on a steady rise across the world, with more people being educated about it, acknowledging it and seeking professional help when they feel like they need it. These are things we can do by ourselves as adults, perhaps with a little nudge from family and/or friends. But, children, in their crucial years of development need a conducive environment for positive mental health practices. And at the heart of this are their parents, as what you see or are taught at home has a significant impact on how you deal with the outside world.
Understanding behaviours, encouraging positives and learning from negatives:
Do you often think your child is ‘acting out’? Are you getting feedback about their disruptive behaviour at school? Are they not getting along with their peers? There may be several underlying reasons for such behaviour, but it is difficult to seek simple and direct communication from a child about what they are feeling. Additionally, aiming to correct these behaviours at these early stages is crucial but, again, not as simple as telling them not to do something. All of this is a process and one that has to be implemented gradually by encouraging certain practices that lead to a positive mindset while also not discouraging negative ones.
The key to understanding a child’s mindset comes from observing them in different situations and contexts and teaching them some practices to enhance or cope with them. This includes how they relate or talk to others, how self-aware they are, how they feel about themselves and the way they deal with difficult situations.
Cultivating a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset
Positive mindsets most often lead to positive behaviours and one major way of doing this with children is to encourage a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is one where we believe that all our personality traits and skills are fixed – if we have them, we have them, and if we don’t, we don’t and can do nothing about it. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one where we understand that if we try hard enough and give it time, we can succeed in achieving it no matter how difficult it seems in the moment.
To facilitate this, parents must try and imbibe this mindset themselves, and then encourage their child to do the same. They must recognise efforts, where the child is shown that it is the process and not purely success that is meaningful. What matters is that they tried, even if it did not work out the way they wanted it to and they can always try again and eventually achieve it.
Forming a bond of trust through emotional availability
As parents, it is important to acknowledge that physical presence is not all that matters, emotional availability is important as well. This involves spending time talking to the child, understanding their unique needs and wishes, and forming a bond of trust. For example, even when a child makes a mistake, you don’t just shout at them and dismiss it. You encourage them to take ownership and work together towards solving the problem at hand. In this way, the child is likely to come to you the next time they think they made a mistake or are in trouble, instead of hiding it due to being scared of your reaction.
Through such practices, parents can become their child’s inspiration, confidant and guide — all in one. In addition to love and care, what most children often need is a listening ear and a guiding voice. They need to feel safe and valued at the same time, and even the littlest of things a parent says can have a major impact on how a child perceives and, consequently, acts on it.
The experiences one undergoes in childhood play a significant role in the way they conduct themselves for the rest of their lives. Every child has their own personality traits, learns in a different way and at a different pace. By understanding these factors concerning their own child, parents can tailor the environment at home to be conducive to positive mental health practices for the child at present, which will carry them throughout the rest of their life.
(The writer is Founder, Miracle Foundation India.)