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Mental Health in Early years

The last few weeks were challenging for all of us. With India unlocking in phases, with the rise in the number of positive cases, with recent news of a Bollywood actor’s sudden death by suicide, everything seemed very chaotic and unsettling.

At the same time, lot of speculations were made around the actor’s death, some blamed the departed soul for being insensitive as he had all the comforts in the world and still took his own life, some blamed nepotism, some boasted about how one should value life and not promote suicide culture while others were busy signing petitions against the Bollywood biggies.

Amidst all these, the real topic of discussion may have been overlooked: MENTAL HEALTH!!!!

Mental health in India is still considered a taboo. The stigma associated with mental health is one of the causes of why we are not receiving adequate information, healthcare, and treatment.  Sometimes the barriers to mental health issues are simply a matter of parents being unaware that support exists. Parents may feel that these supports are cost-prohibitive or just marketing gimmicks. Another barrier is the parents themselves are fearful that their child will be ‘labeled’ and subsequently ostracized by his or her peers.

According to an article by Indian Express, dated 13th December 2019, approx…  9.5-14.2 percent of children in the age group of 0-5 years old experience emotional, relational, or behavioral disturbance.

To add to this, the current pandemic during which our children have been forced to stay indoors since the past 3 months could have potentially made them far more anxious and stressed. Some children may have even witnessed death due to Covid-19, or a separation from family members or physical/emotional abuse during this lockdown. 

At Vega Schools, where safety is accorded the highest priority, we believe that both mental and physical health is of equal importance, especially during their developing years. 

What children experience during their early developing years, lay the foundation for future academic, social, emotional, and behavioral success, and any kind of negative interference will impair their learning capabilities, thinking skills, and approach towards life.

Promoting positive emotional and mental wellbeing during the early developmental years is very important. If we can teach children the skills they need in their formative years, they can carry these skills with them through their elementary years and beyond. On the other hand, if we ignore a problem a child is having, that problem can grow over time and become more difficult to remediate. A child’s emotional and mental systems are nurtured through feelings of attachments, security, and loving relationships with families, friends, teachers, and society as a whole.

Thus early intervention can lead to

  • improved diagnosis and treatment
  • better understanding of the targeted issues
  • improved confidence of parents and teaching staffs
  • improved confidence of our children to talk about their emotions even during their darkest hour

Before we discuss how we can manage our children’s mental health, we need to also notice the red flags or warning signs which they may have. Mental health in children is pervasive, but we first need to learn to recognize this issue in our children before learning how to help them.

  • Frequent meltdowns or throwing tantrums
  • Excessive aggression including hurting their self
  • Binge eating, or demanding food frequently.
  • Difficulty in sleeping, staying awake till late.
  • Decreased social interaction, avoiding school, play dates.
  • Delay in motor skills.
  • Decreased communication or avoiding any conversation.
  • Sudden fear or emotional outbursts or nightmares.
  • Complaining about a stomach ache, headache despite proper medical intervention.
  • Always on the move, destructive playing.
  • Clinging, whining, repeating lines.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Overreacting on small issues.

Please note that just because our children may have one or two of the above-mentioned points, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have mental health disorders.

How to nurture our children’s mental health?

  • Let’s talk about mental health: “It’s ok to cry when upset”. “It’s ok to feel scared”, and “it is ok to talk about these feelings to family members”. If they can talk about stomach-ache or their hunger, they can also talk about their fears, anxiety & stress. We should encourage our children to talk about their feelings from an early age. Myths, confusion, and misinformation about mental illnesses can cause anxiety, strengthen stereotypes, and lead to stigma. Based on our children’s age, it is important to answer their questions directly and honestly and to reassure them about their concerns and feelings.
  • Using the right language: Words like depression, anxiety, or frustration can sound heavy and scary to our young children. But at the same time, we need to use the right language to talk about mental health instead of keeping them in darkness. Our children hear all types of stereotypes either at school or home, they may use words or phrases like “Are you mad?” or “what a stupid question you have asked!”, “Why is that child behaving weirdly”. We need to use this opportunity to educate them to use appropriate words around mental health and related illness. They may know someone who is sick or feeling very sad, hence we can weave the narrative of mental illness into something they know or have witnessed. For example, we can show them movies like Tare Zameen Pe, and then have a conversation around Dyslexia and encourage them to talk about their shortcomings if any.
  • Safe social media interaction: With online classes and limited physical interaction with friends, our children’s screen time has definitely increased and so are the risks of anxiety and frustration. Hence we have to be careful about their social media content, their gaming devices, and what they are exploring on the net. We don’t want any cyberbullying or violent games to affect their mind.
  • Honest discussion around Covid-19: Our children are by now accustomed to the current lockdown situation and the reason behind it. At the same time, they are also tired of staying indoors, not able to play with friends in the park, no birthday parties, etc. With the constant buzz of news on the television and the internet, we have to update them with facts and information around the virus, of course in an age-appropriate manner. To know how to talk about the corona, please head to this article by Vega schools, dated   1st  April 2020.
  • Label their emotions, not suppress them: To develop an emotional vocabulary, it is important to help children identify and name their feelings. This way communication is initiated and they know that their feelings are recognized and respected. Denying a child the chance to express themselves sends them a very loud message that their feelings are not worthy. Never say “Stop crying”. This will result in low self-esteem. When feelings are minimized or dismissed, they will often be expressed in unhealthy ways.
  • Set example: We need to start talking about our feelings to set a good example. Some parents have this fear that saying there is a problem will reflect poorly on their children. They are convinced that they need to be SUPER PARENTS and that admitting their child is struggling might be admitting it’s all their fault. When parents feel there is a concern, they need to be empowered to bring it up.”

And not only that, we can share our emotions and create opportunities for our children to come up with solutions. This positive engagement will empower them to take mental health seriously.

Always be there for them: Our children should feel confident about the fact that their parents are always approachable. No matter how busy we are, what our state of mind is, we should always be available for our children whenever they need us. Always remember that dismissing them or their thoughts may result in low self-esteem. Hence using your positive body language, always show them that you are there for them.

  • Develop their self-worth: Encouragement and affection are what they need at the time of crisis to boost them. Hence the more we praise them, the more we allow them to make their own choices; the more we show love and acceptance, the better they respond to stress. If we know that they will succeed in a particular job, let them get involved in it as much as they can. This sense of achievement will motivate them to further come out of their fear and anxiety.
  • Positive home environment: Since we are all indoors with our children, it is very important to have a positive, chirpy, and colorful environment. Let the outside chaotic world not affect our indoor environment. From watching mindful news to avoiding discussing serious family issues around our children, we have to make sure that we don’t pass negative vibes on them. Let there be space for playing, lazing and monkeying around, encourage them for physical activities, have frequent games in the balcony, and chant “We will get over it soon”. This will develop a strong family relationship.

As parents and Learning leaders, we should never ignore the warning signs, and if required we should seek help from counselors or therapists. Early intervention will help in defining the problem areas. Let’s accept that we are also not very well equipped with knowledge and information about mental health, hence at times we may fail to understand our children and their needs, and this is the time we need help from a healthcare provider. We at Vega Schools have trained counselors who observe, understand, and provide support to our learners on tell-tale signs. They are up-to-date on things that affect learner’s emotional, behavioral, and mental wellbeing. Please feel free to contact us.

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