The foundations of good mental and physical health have many similarities. Maintaining adequate sleep, a healthy diet, and consistent physical activity keeps children feeling mentally and physically fit. Beyond these basic needs, good mental health is about relationships. Relationships teach us how to interact with and relate to others in constructive, mutually beneficial ways. It is important to devote time to your relationship with your child. Create a schedule each week with uninterrupted time with your child. Promoting your child’s successes and strengths will help the growth of your child and assist in mastering the challenges as they come. Children want the approval and attention of their trusted adult. You are each learning and growing together, have fun!
As children learn and grow, their behavior changes. Developmentally appropriate behaviors change year after year as children grow and adapt and learn to cope with challenges. Child development is often grouped into five key areas: language, physical, emotional, social, and cognitive. Each age has its developmental milestones. Still, it’s important to remember that what’s “typical” of a given age can be broad. A child’s ability to cope with stress in effective, age-appropriate ways is one basic measure of good mental health in kids. Take tantrums, for example. A two-year-old’s anguished response to not getting an extra cookie, while extreme, is pretty typical for their age. The same response to the same situation from a twelve-year-old, on the other hand, would be cause for concern. Ideally, as we grow, we learn better tools to cope with what life throws at us. Your pediatrician can be a great resource for explaining developmental milestones and evaluating your child’s progress toward them.
Key social-emotional skills begin to develop around the age of five. From infancy, there are three distinct emotions: anger, joy, and fear. Emotional awareness and understanding beyond that develop over time as you help nurture their social emotional health.
Keep reading to learn more about what emotional health looks like at different ages.
Elementary School Children (5-8)
Heading into elementary school is a very exciting time for kids. Not only is it often the beginning of their academic journey, but it may also be the first time they have been around so many kids their age. This lends itself to a crucial time for social emotional development.
Kids these ages become increasingly interested in friendship. They become more sociable as their interest in group activities and attachment to peers grows. Elementary school children may have a best friend (or even an ‘enemy’) for the first time as they begin to strongly identify with certain kids. As their attachment to friends grows, they love playing with their friends and don’t like to stop. To help make the end of playtime easier for them, give your kid a 5-10 minute warning before they’ll need to leave or change activities. This helps them know what to expect and lets them emotionally prepare to move on to the next activity.
Competition also becomes a key part of their friendships and sibling relationships. They may try to boss other kids around or become quite upset if they lose. To combat hyper-competitiveness, encourage non-competitive games and individual goal setting. Now is the time to teach them how to lose (and win!) respectfully. Asking them to think about how the other kid feels when they react that way to a game strengthens their empathy.
Young kids may also start tattling on their friends and siblings to get adult attention but this can also serve as a great way for them to learn rules. To minimize their tattling behavior while still encouraging their rule exploration, pay attention to and reward positive, rule-following behavior.
Another developmental change for elementary school children that impacts their emotional health is their fears. They begin to shift from supernatural fears like creatures in the dark, ghosts, etc. to more tangible fears like schools, interpersonal relationships, and family issues. Be cognizant of the fact that children as young as five years old are still tuned into the family dynamics and can begin to have ‘adult’ worries, like family loss of income. To help them manage and confront their fears, give them realistic information to help them handle their new fears. Avoid teasing them about what frightens them as these jokes can make the fears worse for them and fail to give them tangible, constructive tools to address their fears.
They also become more sensitive to personal criticism and do not yet understand how to accept failure. Negative feedback can be jarring for them so it is important to concentrate on their successes and teach them how to learn from criticism. Ask them reflective questions like, “What can we do differently next time?” Involve them in the process of learning how to address setbacks. Affirm that things will be okay and encourage resilience in them. Supportive adult relationships and community opportunities increase their resilience.
Middle School Children (9-12)
The start of adolescents can present many new challenges for children. This is the time when children come more into themselves and develop their humor and hobbies. If emotionally healthy, middle schoolers will be confident and feel positive about themselves. While it is normal for kids of this age to have bursts of emotion and impatience, overall they should be calm and self-confident, at peace with themselves and the world around them. Their self-image improves each time they succeed at something. Encourage attainable goal setting and continue to celebrate their successes with them. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations for them, as those unmet goals are especially damaging to their self-image and emotional health during this stage of development. Teach them healthy ways to respond to mistakes and get back up without taking them too personally. Kids of this age can accept failures more realistically.
Having a positive, nurturing relationship with you builds their self-confidence and self-assurance as you provide them with praise, affection, and a reasonable balance between independence and rules.
Middle school serves as a great time to increase children’s emotional awareness and sense of community as they show more concern and sensitivity to the needs of others.
They begin to gain a better understanding of themselves and want more independence. This also coincides with disobedience as they may give more backtalk or engage in more rebellious behavior.
As children grow in age, their need for autonomy grows with them. Providing them with safe, healthy boundaries that still enable them to practice decision-making on their own can help foster their independence.
These children become more comfortable interacting with their peers and community. They place more weight on their connections outside of the home as they continue exploring interpersonal relationships. Children of this age begin hanging out in mixed-sex settings much more than they were previously comfortable with. While adolescents become more interconnected with their peers, the family remains an important anchor in their lives. Young teens continue to seek their parents’ counsel and lean on them for extra emotional support and guidance.
Now is a valuable time to obtain leadership skills. Allowing young people to make their own decisions about their activities promotes their development. Encouraging club and group activities for your child provides them with opportunities to learn about decision-making and improve their leadership skills.