Today is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day

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A Brief History

On May 9, 2019, we once again celebrate a special day, National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, a “holiday” celebrated on the first Thursday of the first full week of May each year.  This “holiday” was dreamed up by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, a government agency), with a stated goal of “to increase public awareness about the needs of children with serious mental illness (SMI) and severe emotional disturbance (SED) and their families, provide information on evidence-based practices, and encourage those who need help to seek treatment.”

While the purpose of this special day is deadly serious and quite important, as kids with mental health issues often grow up to be adults with mental health issues, we offer a somewhat  serious look at several ways we can all help children maintain their sanity in an insane world.  Some of our advice is indeed standard stuff you may find in a book, while other tidbits may be a little more tongue in cheek.  You decide which pieces of advice are serious.  If you are not sure, feel free to look them up.  (The author knows first hand that many of the things listed below will backfire on a parent or adult supervisor.  Experience is a hard, hard teacher.)

Digging Deeper

1. Do not hit kids.

Painting by Georg Conrad (1827–1889)

As easy and as instinctive it may be to slap a mouth child or give a recalcitrant tot a little whap on the back of the head, recent studies indicate hitting kids is counterproductive.  May adults point out that they were hit as children and “Came out just fine,” but again, scientific studies indicate otherwise.  Researchers claim hitting kids does not have the desired effect in behavior modification, but only provides a temporary visible result that does not last and may cause long term harm.  In any case, it is not legal or morally right to injure a child, so if you insist on some sort of corporal punishment, use great caution when administering it.  Use your great adult intellect to come up with alternative punishments, such as turning off their cell phone service or ending your cable TV.  Plus, the little buggers might grow up resenting the heck out of being hit as kids and put you into a nursing home before your time.

2, Be careful what questions you ask a child.

Students of Stony Creek State School, Queensland, 1939

You may have heard the old adage, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”  We are here to tell you, “Yes, there are such things as stupid questions!”  Example, never ask your kid, “Do I look stupid???”  Nor should you ask, “Do you think I’m an idiot????”  (Same thing with, “Do you think I’m crazy???”)  The honest little bugger might just answer the rhetorical question that you really do not want an answer to!  (Note: Younger kids do not understand rhetorical questions, nor do they understand irony.)  Do not be disappointed if you ask your kid, “Do your friends do that?”  and they answer in the affirmative.  If you say, “What do you want me to do?” be prepared for an answer that you might not be looking for.  If you are an adult in a supervisory role, do not ask a kid, “Do you do that at home?”  The answer, invariably, is “Yes.”

3. Be extremely careful about scaring a child.

Goya’s Que viene el Coco (“Here Comes the Bogeyman / The Boogeyman is Coming”), c. 1797

Tales of something bad or some sort of boogie man or monster might end up giving the kid the willies that last into adulthood.  Life is hard enough without creating phobias unnecessarily.  Lying to kids in order to scare them is generally a bad thing. Try not to overdo cautions about kidnappers, child molesters, car accidents and the like or all this scaring may have a detrimental effect.  Try to avoid any sort of tales that result in the child becoming afraid of the dark.  Learn about childhood fears and how to combat them.  If you try to intimidate a child by telling him or her that his/her “…face will stay that way!” when they are making faces, you should fully expect the child to ask you if that is what happened to you!

4. Avoid common myths.

Acne vulgaris in an 18-year-old male during puberty.  Photograph by Roshu Bangal.

The boy’s hands are NOT going to get all hairy and his vision fail if he “experiments” with his body.  For the heck of it, try being honest with a kid so they do not grow up thinking you are either stupid or a liar.  Feeding a kid stupid wives’ tales such as chocolate causes acne (or for that matter anything the kid eats or does) or kids must wait 30 minutes (or any variation of time) before going into a pool after eating is wrong and your kids will eventually find out, and then they will know you either lied or you were not so smart.  If you tell your child, “Never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.” do not be surprised when the little terror sticks really big stuff in his ears!  Feed your kids tales of the cabbage patch and the stork, then do not be shocked when your 13 year old comes home pregnant.

5. Do not confuse kids with double standards and hypocrisy.

Banner in a campaign against bullying Cefet-MG.  Photograph by Andrevruas.

Be the example of what you want your children to be.  If you are a chain smoker, do not expect your kids to take you seriously when you tell them not to smoke.  Same thing for drinking alcohol, especially to excess.  Same thing with marijuana or vaping.  Your kids, and children in general, learn more by the example we set than by pontificating to them about this and that.  You use swear words, so will they, even if you tell them not to.  If you want children to be honest, do not lie to them or tell them, “Don’t tell your father…”  Do not let them observe you lying to other adults or people in public (like saying your 13 year old is 11 so you get discount meals or admission).  If you steal stuff at work and bring it home, do not be shocked when your kid gets picked up for shoplifting.  If you hit your kids, they will think it is perfectly natural and just fine for them to hit people that are smaller and weaker than themselves.  (There is logic in this, you know.)  You can extrapolate this idea into nutrition as well.  If you eat your salad and vegetables and avoid junk food and excessive sweets, perhaps your kids will learn from the example.  Treat each other and others the way you would like your kids grow up to treat people.

(By the way, it is terribly confusing to a child to be telling him or her to “Stop crying!” when you are hitting them.  As a precocious lad, I was quite confused by this very conundrum.)

6. Be careful what you say about your own mental health.

Lithograph of a man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong suicidal tendency (1892) after a drawing by Alexander Johnston, 1837, for Sir Alexander Morison.

If you constantly moan about all the injustices you encounter at work and in life and about how much “life sucks,” your kids will probably learn that life is indeed not a bowl of cherries and may end up depressed, maybe to the point of contemplating suicide.  Never talk about wanting to die yourself in front of children, or they may get the idea that suicide is a reasonable option.  Obviously, this bit of advice is as serious as can be.  Going on and on about how you “can’t win” and how the deck is stacked against you will have a profound impact on your kids.  Learn the warning signs of suicidal thoughts in children and take appropriate action if any of those signs become apparent.  A little internet research into the subject or consulting a mental health professional may get you the foundation of knowledge you need to recognize a potential problem.  Never ignore a potential problem or take a child’s depression lightly.

7. Strive for balance in criticism and praise.

President George W. Bush signing the No Child Left Behind Act.

In this era of “Every kid gets a trophy” we sometimes believe only praise is appropriate, regardless of the words and actions that the child may manifest.  Of course a sensible dose of criticism can be helpful, as it displays a level of honesty from the adult and can provide a blueprint for improvement.  Just avoid calling names and using harsh terms.  Never belittle a kid or threaten some sort of ridiculous punishment for screwing something up.  If you must offer criticism be sure to throw in something nice to say if at all possible.  On the other hand, do not be phony in your excessive praise or the tyke will grow up thinking he or she can do no wrong and find out the hard way that this impression is not shared by the rest of the world.  A child raised on only praise, especially unjustified praise, is likely to turn out to be a snowflake that cannot take criticism and perhaps think he or she is better than other people.

8. Never tell a kid he or she is unwanted.

Each Life Matters demonstration in Madrid, Spain, on 17 October 2009.  Photograph by GuidoB.

“I wish you were never born!”  “I should have gotten an abortion!”  “We should have stopped after Kyle!”  “You ruined my life!”  “You ruined my figure!”  These types of statements should never be made.  The psyche of the child may be damaged to the point of eventually resulting in suicide or in other mental problems of lack of self-worth or the like.  Never, ever, ever say such things.  Ever.  Along these same lines, never make a kid feel as if an illness, infirmity, or defect of some kind is the kid’s fault or some sort of plot to ruin the life of the parent.  Speech defects, physical defects, learning problems, and illnesses are NOT something the child created just to make your life difficult.  It is unfair as heck to act as if it is.  If you would have preferred a child of the opposite sex, try to never let on to the child that you do have.  Plus, try not to place either gender above the other lest you cause either resentment or self-esteem issues.

9. Do not compare your kid to other kids.

Jodie Foster in 1974.  She started acting at age 3, becoming the quintessential child actor during the 1970s with roles in films like Tom Sawyer (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Bugsy Malone (1976), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), and Freaky Friday (1977).

“Why can’t you be like Arthur?  He gets good grades and never gets detentions!”  Your kid will become a homicidal maniac time bomb just waiting to take it out on the unfortunate Arthur.  Plus, your kid will be wondering, “Why can’t you be like Warren Buffet?  Then we could afford decent food and a decent car.”  Touché, mister or missus parent, Touché.  Seriously, you know your kid would rather have LeBron James as his dad, so do not push it by comparing the lad to some other kid.

Questions for students (and subscribers): What can you do to help children you know maintain good mental health?  What are some things not to do?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Halloran, Janine. Coping Skills for Kids Workbook: Over 75 Coping Strategies to Help Kids Deal with Stress, Anxiety and Anger. PESI Publshing & Media, 2018.

Matke, Angela. Mayo Clinic Guide to Raising a Healthy Child.  Mayo Clinic Press, 2019.

Siegel, Daniel and Tina Bryson. No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.  Bantam, 2014.

The featured image in this article, a graph from The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, Penguin 2009, can be downloaded and used freely without permission, on condition you acknowledge their source: The Spirit Level, Wilkinson & Pickett, Penguin 2009.  The copyright holder of this file, Wilkinson & Pickett, allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.