Children’s experiences in their earliest years affect how their brains work, the way they respond to stress, and their ability to form trusting relationships. In this period, they develop basic motor (physical) skills, language and communication, and cognitive and emotional behaviour. These skills lay the foundation for developing literacy and other cognitive abilities that are critical for success in school and life.
Significant mental health problems can and do occur in young children. It could be an anxiety disorder, hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, stress disorder, and neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as autism, at a very early age. That said, young children respond to and process emotional experiences and traumatic events in ways that are very different from adults and older children.
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Here are 15 ways in which you can take care of your toddler's mental health
- Breastfeed for as long as possible: It might sound simple or silly, but that connection is first and best established by breastfeeding. It's a very powerful tool for excellent emotional health.
- Focus on quality time: Whether you are a working parent or a stay-at-home parent, carve out times in the day when you would spend quality time with your toddler. Ensure that you are focused and distraction-free; that means not checking your office emails or your Instagram feed. Even if it is a small game that you play with them, a book you read to them, or tune into a podcast together- establish your “comfort zone” and make it a routine, so they are assured of you spending time with them.
- Pick your battles: It is important at this stage to stand firm by certain rules and not give in to every demand of your child. But understand that at this transient phase, toddlers fight for control and try to rebel every time you say NO. As parents, we raise our kids in a very autocratic and hierarchical fashion that puts us on a pedestal and gives us the power to assume we are right. Pick and choose your battles for a win-win situation. Define your core values and non-negotiables and stand firm on them. But for the non-essential ones, like choosing the colour of their outfit or picking a cartoon to watch, it is better to simply give in and watch them mellow down easily.
- Be their safe haven: The first time stepping into preschool isn’t an easy journey for your toddler (or for parents) Some kids gel into the crowd very well and make friends easily. But if your toddler is hesitating a bit and is anxious about the new atmosphere, it is important for them to know that they have your backing and support. If they come back to you crying or refuse to take the first step into school, don’t push them into doing things they don’t want to. Tell them it is okay and you are around in case they want to come back to you. Make promises that you will follow through, no matter what. When they know that you, their safety nest, are around, they will be more willing to try out new things. Define the normal for your family.
- Positive affirmations: At this stage, when you think your toddler is at crossroads, i.e. they are no longer that babbling infant and not yet a grade-schooler, we often tend to say more NOs than YESes. And that doesn’t sit well in a toddler’s mind. Start appreciating them and their identity for small acts of kindness and things they get right. It helps boost their morale, and they will open up to you in a better way.
- Stick to a routine: A change in routine or something new always prompts resistance from a child- especially when they are toddlers. Help them set up routines and follow them, so they know what’s to be done without you yelling at them. For example, bath times need not always be an ordeal if it is established that it is done at 8 am every morning. Add a certain element of fun to every task, so they look forward to it and do not dread it.
- The LCR method: Practise the LCR method: listen, comfort and reassure. With our children, we want to build a bond that reassures them that no matter how big or small the mistake, their parents are there for them.
- Help them develop empathy: Helping children feel good about themselves plays an important role in developing a sense of empathy and emotional competence. By creating a positive environment where children are allowed to share their feelings, children will naturally begin to become more generous and thoughtful. Parents can also boost empathy and build emotional intelligence by encouraging their children to think about how other people feel.
- Take care of the mother's emotional health: Most mothers aren’t aware of how much children mirror them and how much children are able to feel their feelings even if the mothers aren't showing them. A very good way to ensure a happy baby is to ensure a happy mother.
- Have a healthy marital relationship: In many scenarios, where mothers are not in favourable marriages or any other scenario, the children can't always be provided with the kind of loving support that they need. This is where the fathers also play an important role. If fathers are aware of the importance of all this, then there is a higher chance of the father making a safe space for the mothers, which in turn creates that space for the babies.
- Understand their transition phases: The most important thing about toddlers' well-being is to understand that they are in the phase of transition. They are absorbing what's happening around them and are also trying to express what is going on within themselves.
- Help them build their emotional vocabulary: Toddlers are developing their linguistic skills, and that is why we should first all focus on building the emotional vocabulary of toddlers. Emotional vocabulary is basically naming the emotion. So if you have a feeling of sadness, it is good if the toddler can say that I'm feeling sad. Hence, parents need to demonstrate this kind of habit in front of toddlers. They have to help build this emotional vocabulary to bring toddlers to a level where they can name it to tame it.
- Help them develop problem-solving skills: Day-to-day activities that require problem-solving, like tying shoelaces or having a simple meal together (the child should try to feed himself/herself), must be encouraged. There are studies that highlight that if toddlers are being trained to complete their own tasks, they get a sense of independence through that and are found to be emotionally stronger than others.
- Regulate your own emotions: It is very important for parents to take care of their own emotional health. Strong parents develop strong children, and there are umpteen studies highlighting that. If children get exposure where parents have a higher capacity to fight back and show higher levels of resilience, then for sure, the children develop these skills too. Build up your own emotional resilience to make sure your kids develop it at an early age.
- Accept them for who they are: Not only is accepting them for who they are important, but it also helps drive this valuable lesson to our children from a young age. In parenting, there is no room for judgement. There is no saying good kid, bad kid, and there is no hitting the floor when your child falls, which to me is a clear indication of passing the blame to someone else! It’s about saying this is who I am. I am in my safe haven where I am not judged for how I look or behave. They will accept me for my faults. These are people who will show me the mirror and tell me I am wrong. They will tell me I am wrong, I have fallen, and they will help me get back up on my feet.
(Inputs from Dr Megha Consul, Principal Consultant- Pediatrics, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Gurugram, Meghna Yadav, Child Psychologist and Head of Training, KLAY, Mansi Zaveri, Founder, Kidsstoppress.com, Pritisha Borthakur - Independent Journalist, Author, Entrepreneur)
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