By Jim Sliwa (Director, APA Public Affairs)
To mark Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (May 4), we posed a series of questions to the authors of two titles from APA’s Magination Press, which publishes innovative books that help children deal with the many challenges and problems they face as they grow up.
Jon Lasser, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, school psychologist, professor and program director of the School Psychology program at Texas State University. He is the co-author (along with his daughter Sage Foster-Lasser) of “Grow Happy,” which teaches children how they can play a pivotal role in creating their own happiness.
Frank J. Sileo, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Center for Psychological Enhancement in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He is the author of “A World of Pausabilities: An Exercise in Mindfulness,” which uses rhyming verse and illustrations to introduce children to mindfulness and how to apply it to simple, everyday moments.
Why, in your professional opinion, is children’s mental health so important for success later in life?
Lasser: We have different ways of thinking about success that encompass successful careers, relationships and social status. Investing in children’s mental health helps kids achieve positive outcomes in all that they do. Consider the importance of emotional regulation at work, at home and in communities. Children’s capacity to take the perspectives of others, think before acting and self-regulate serve as the foundation for effective learning and collaborating. By promoting the social and emotional health of children, we cultivate internal resources that will serve them throughout their lives.
Sileo: Early on, it is important for parents and caregivers to build healthy and strong mental health for children. Parents tend to focus exclusively on building and maintaining physical health. In order for children to reach their potential, attention must be paid to a child’s mental health. The relationship a child has with parents and the variety of caregivers can help shape the developing brain. When there is instability in brain development, it can greatly impair learning and the development of healthy and appropriate relationships with others. For a child’s developing brain, we want to nurture the growth of learning, social skills and overall physical health. When children are provided with a strong foundation early on in life regarding their social-emotional needs, we lay the groundwork for potential success later in life.
How does child mental health differ from mental health in adults, if at all?
Lasser: Children and adults have much in common. We share a need to communicate and a desire to be connected with others. Our basic psychological needs for relationships cut across the lifespan. That being said, there are significant developmental differences. For example, depression in children may be more likely expressed as irritability. Some mental health concerns for children can be best understood in the context of family or school systems. Helping children with mental health needs often requires the collaborative efforts of parents, teachers and other influential adults. We can help children by ensuring that their developmental needs are being met and that environmental demands (such as teacher and parent expectations) are appropriate.
Sileo: Children can show signs of mental health issues similar to adults. Children can receive diagnoses like adults (e.g., anxiety disorders, depression). It can be difficult for mental health providers to identify mental health issues in children. Mental health professionals have to differentiate diagnosing a mental health issue from normal child development. Children differ from adults because they undergo various physical, mental and emotional changes as they go through typical growth and development. Children have not yet learned how to cope with others and the environment around them. Moreover, children respond to and process emotional experiences differently due to lack of maturity, inexperience and brain development.
Your book is geared toward children age 4 to 8. While it’s most likely that these children will be reading the book alongside their parents who can help them make sense of the concepts, how did you go about creating and structuring content that would be accessible and useful to young minds?
Lasser: Writing a children’s book requires careful thinking about the children to whom the book will be read. For Grow Happy to work, my co-author, Sage Foster-Lasser, and I thought carefully about writing the book in such a way that young children would be able to understand. We piloted early drafts with children in the target age range and revised as needed. We also worked hard to keep sentences short and to limit the vocabulary to very short words. Chris Lyles’ beautiful illustrations are also attractive to young children and bring the story to life. Children identify with Kiko, the main character, who is a child. They also fall in love with Chico, her dog.
Sileo: I have been working with children for over 21 years. In my practice, I do play therapy and read a lot of children’s books to children and on my own. I also keep a pulse on the youth culture by periodically watching the shows that are of importance to children. When I write my books, I often read them to family and friends who have young children to make sure the words and concepts are kid-friendly and understandable. I also read my books to my patients before I send them for possible publication. In my practice, I treat children of various ages, diagnoses and learning/reading levels. This affords me a good barometer [of] whether young people can understand the book’s content and message. Kids can be brutally honest. If they don’t like or understand something, they will tell you. The feedback is always helpful to me. Kids know what they like and what they don’t.
What are some simple things that you would recommend parents of young children can do to help support healthy emotional and psychological development?
Lasser: Children thrive when they have a deeply rooted understanding that they are loved and valued, and parents who express this unconditional positive regard to their children daily are meeting a basic psychological need. That alone can go very far in promoting mentally healthy children. When parents play with their children, particularly imaginative play (pretending to be animals or royalty or robots), it encourages the development of so many social and emotional skills, such as perspective taking, communication, and planning skills. Parents can also help by allowing children to express their feelings freely and listening to those feelings without criticizing or judging. In other words, parents build their children’s mental health by being present and engaged.
Sileo: It really depends on the age of your child but here are some general guidelines: Remember that you are their role models for behavior, identifying emotions and how to express them appropriately. Be a good listener. Communication is a two-way street—talking and listening. Build your child’s self-esteem and confidence. When children have self-esteem, they are happier, have a sense of security and are better adjusted. When they have good self-confidence, they can learn to work hard despite challenges, learn to ask for help, and do better in school. We can show children that we respect individuality. Children have their own interests, strengths and talents. Do not compare your child to others. Play and make time for your children. Make memories, catch them being good, read with them, limit electronics and provide structure and regular schedules around bedtimes. Set limits and boundaries to make them feel safe in the world. Be consistent in what you say and do. Lack of consistency can cause kids to feel anxious. Simple things you say and do can go a long way.
Jim Sliwa is director of public affairs for the American Psychological Association.
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