What Are We Teaching Our Children About Mental Health?

When I was growing up, I was always so excited about the first day of school each year. I looked forward to seeing my friends, learning new things and being involved in my favorite activities (I was a band and chorus geek, if you must know.)

I remember my Dad and I would always say “They’ve turned the magnet back on,” because it seemed like a giant magnet was drawing all the children back toward the school after the long summer break.

I’ve spent almost every year of my life going back to school, either as a student or as a college professor. I still get charged up about the promise of each new school year, and I enjoy teaching the next generation as well as continually learning from my students. The annual ritual is both invigorating and comforting.

Although most of my work as a psychologist has been with adults, I also have a strong interest in promoting the mental health and wellness of children and families. I’m often struck by the sobering realization that while we do a pretty good job of teaching our kids about science, math, history, and language, we don’t fare very well in helping them learn how to manage stress, loss, or adversity. Shouldn’t these issues also be a core part of every educational program for children?

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

The data from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study certainly provide support for this idea. The study was conducted to assess the associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. Over 17,000 adults provided detailed information about their childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction.

The types of adverse childhood experiences studied were a) Abuse: emotional, physical, and sexual; b) Neglect: emotional and physical; c) Family dysfunction: witnessing domestic violence, alcohol or other substance abuse in the home, having a family member with mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and having someone in the family imprisoned.

The study found that many people experience these harsh events in their childhood. 63% of the people surveyed had experienced at least one category of childhood trauma. Over 20% experienced 3 or more of the adverse childhood experiences.

Some form of abuse was experienced by a significant number of people: 11% (emotional), 28% (physical), and 21% (sexual). 15% experienced emotional neglect and 10% had been subjected to physical neglect. 13% witnessed their mothers being treated violently. 27% grew up with someone in the household using alcohol and/or drugs. 19% grew up with a person with mental illness in the home. 23% lost a parent due to separation or divorce. 5% grew up with a household member in jail or prison.

The more ACEs an individual experienced in childhood, the greater the likelihood of having a variety of physical and mental health problems later in life. These included alcoholism and alcohol abuse, illicit drug use, smoking, depression, suicide attempts, risk for intimate partner violence, poor health-related quality of life, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), ischemic heart disease, liver disease, obesity, multiple sexual partners, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unintended pregnancies and fetal death.

Let’s Focus on Prevention

Findings from the ACE study and similar research have led to an increased focus on prevention of adverse childhood experiences as a way to keep many of the subsequent negative consequences of childhood maltreatment from occurring. We know that it’s far easier to prevent a problem in the first place instead of trying to fix it after it has already become well established.

Examples of effective, research-based child maltreatment prevention programs include:

  • Child-parent centers – provide comprehensive education and support to economically disadvantaged families
  • Nurse-family partnerships – offer home visitation by nurses who can teach healthy behaviors to high-risk families for prenatal, infant, and toddler care
  • Parent-child interaction therapy – teaches parents skills to improve parent-child relationships through increasing appropriate child behaviors while reducing inappropriate behaviors
  • Safe environment for every kid (SEEK) programs – screen parents of young children for exposure to violence, substance abuse or mental illness and then provide appropriate referrals for support and intervention

Recently, I’ve been involved in a very promising pilot project sponsored by our state psychological foundation, with the goal of providing accessible information about health and wellness to pre-school children to help them be ready for kindergarten.

The vehicle for transmitting this useful and timely information is an eye-catching, beautifully designed, child-oriented magazine, delivered to several schools throughout the state, free of charge. The funding for the project is provided through a creative mix of sources including corporate sponsorships and grants.

We need more of this kind of thinking outside the box and additional efforts to develop progressive, engaging and effective programs to give our children a solid foundation in mental health. We need to adapt every school’s curriculum to teach children how to manage stress, have healthy relationships, cope with life’s challenges, bounce back from setbacks, and deal with difficult feelings.

But we can also do a lot to move forward toward these goals through our everyday conversations with our children and other family members. We can have a huge impact when we show compassion for others, teach ways to work through difficult situations, and remember to display kindness and gratitude to those around us.

If we each do a little, together we can do a lot. The payoff is enormous, not only to bring a little more happiness and contentment into each child’s life today, but to plant the seeds for a healthier and more productive life for years to come.

Here’s a question: What else can we do to help our children learn how to be more resilient in the face of stresses and challenges? Please leave a comment. Also, please feel free to follow me on Twitter and connect on Facebook or LinkedIn. Thanks!

  • RecoveryPatience

    I think a great way to engage children, is to teach them skills. Such as, violin. I am a violin teacher myself, and I see that teaching this to a child is a great opportunity. A parent can get involved in his/her child’s education. The parent can attend the child’s lessons, and then become actively involved by taking notes, and then practicing with the child at home every day. Not only does the child internalize the material more solidly with the parent, as opposed to practicing alone… but the relationship between parent and child will be enhanced!

    I remember my own childhood. My father was terrible, and I most likely suffered from mental illness due to these experiences, among other reasons. But my mother was loving, and she made efforts to create dialogue with me. That relationship I had with her helped soften the blow of the other challenges in life. It also limited the influence that pop culture had on me.

    If a child is able to have a single adult in his/her life, with whom dialogue can be freely exchanged… this would allow a child to develop resiliency against whatever uncontrollable negative factors influence his/her life.

  • DavidSusman

    Neesa, thanks for your insightful comment. I agree that it’s so important for parents to be actively involved in their children’s education and to teach them in areas such as music, art, athletics, or any other skill which can often end up being a source of enjoyment throughout their life!

  • I totally agree. Thanks for sharing your wonderful insights!

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