Childhood mental health challenges The mental health of your child is as important as his/her physical health

Chido Madzvamutse Mental Wellness

AS discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Mental health and well-being is an important aspect of health across the lifespan.

Right from the womb, in infancy, into childhood and eventually adulthood, it is critical to be aware of the issues that can influence our mental health.

Factors that influence mental health of children:

The experiences of childhood often lay the foundation for our physical and mental health later on in life. A positive, health promoting environment can lay the foundation for life long health.

Factors that influence mental health of children can be biological, family related and community related.

Biological factors influencing child mental health include:

  • Genetics. Our genetic makeup can partially influence our personality and risk of developing mental health challenges.
  • Mother’s health during and after the pregnancy including her mental health. This is the very first environment a child is exposed to and can help influence both physical health and mental health outcomes for a child.

Family factors influencing child mental health include:

  • Family environment. A peaceful supportive environment can help protect a child from stress and some subsequent mental health challenges. A home environment that is chaotic and unstable will negatively affect a child’s mental well-being.
  • The mental health of parents: The physical and mental health of parents is a direct influence on child mental health. Maternal depression if untreated, has been shown to negatively affect both physical and mental development of their children. Poor mental health of fathers has also been shown to affect their ability to be effective parents.

Mental health of parents and caregivers inevitably affect how they love and care for, protect, train and discipline their children. It is essential for parents and caregivers to safeguard their own mental well-being for themselves and for their children.

Community factors influencing child mental health:

  • Socioeconomic status. Severe lack of basic needs can sadly affect a child’s mental health and well-being. Lack of financial resources can also affect a child’s access to psychosocial support and other medical services when needed.
  • Neighbourhoods: High risk, high crime environments can sadly affect children. Living in environments where there is an almost constant danger can traumatise children.
  • School: Schools are a key environment in a child’s life and can also influence a child’s mental well-being. Physically and psychologically safe schools can be an important protective factor against common mental problems of children.

Could my child have a mental health problem?

Parents and caregivers need to be alert so as to notice any changes in development, mood or behaviour that may suggest that a child may be struggling with their mental health. This can help facilitate earlier interventions that can help a child overcome the challenges they are facing and continue to grow and thrive. Common challenges that may indicate that a child maybe struggling with their mental health include:

  • Failing to attain developmental milestones or deterioration in physical or emotional development
  • Excessive, seemingly, irrational fears
  • Sadness and tearfulness
  • Fatigue
  • Demotivation
  • Difficulty with school, decline in school performance
  • Truancy, skipping school lessons
  • Hyperactivity and inattention
  • Disruptive, belligerent behaviour
  • Signs of possible intoxication with alcohol or substances

How can parents help promote mental health of their children?

  1. Develop and work on strengthening a closer relationship with your child and foster open and host communication with them and create an atmosphere of support and encouragement.

It is parents who determine the atmosphere in the home and it is important to reflect on what kind of environment you are currently creating for your children.

This will help you to know and understand their world and the unique challenges they are facing so that you can help when needed. This will also help you to be attuned to their mood and behaviour and help you notice if something may be affecting them

  1. Provide structure, routine and boundaries. As you form a stronger bond with your child also remember that a critical part of good parenting is balancing affection and discipline.

Children do not always know what is good for them and left alone many would eat ice cream for supper and bath once in two weeks.

A parent therefore needs to provide structure that is essential for mental well-being and also help train their child to internalise and form their own routines as they mature.

  1. Become more aware of your own mental well-being and how it may be affecting your child. As we become more aware of our own psychological challenges, we can also model how to manage difficult emotions and this is a critical life skill for all children to learn.

If you think that your child may be experiencing a mental health problem, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

l Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by: Dr Chido Rwafa Madzvamutse, Consultant Psychiatrist.

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