Emotional Health for Kids - Whose Job is it?
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Children between the ages of 3 and 12 years are in the prime learning stages for vital life skills. We know that if we start early, we can teach them to read, write, and do math before they enter kindergarten. Since we want them to be successful in life, we often start them in athletics, dancing, and music as well. But are these things really what is most important?
Suicide statistics tell us otherwise. Headlines scream about college coeds taking their lives in their dormitory rooms, unable to see themselves as anything but a miserable failure. Teens end their lives because they can't make the grade or have suffered from a failed relationship. Even young children are committing suicide because they are friendless or bullied by their peers.
Emotional health is the glue that holds our lives together. It affects everything that we do, have and are. Our ability to understand, manage, and change our emotions gives us the foundation we need to make wise decisions, plan for our future, and have quality relationships with others. We must ask ourselves the following questions:
- Where does emotional health come from?
- How can it be fostered and nurtured?
- Who is responsible for the emotional health of children?
- What happens when public institutions become involved?
Family is not an important thing. It's everything.— Michael J. Fox
Where does emotional health come from?
Emotional health begins long before children enter the public school system. It starts with the bond of trust we establish when they are infants in our arms. Every action we take to see that their needs are met reinforces their feelings of self-worth.
This core concept of identity becomes the foundation of emotional health. It sends the message to the child that they are important and their needs will be met. Children are dependent upon us as their parents or caregivers for every aspect of their development. We are their window to the world. What we say and do gives them a pattern for how they live. If we are patient and kind, and teach them the things that they need to know, they will treat others the same way.
Emotional health consists of the following five core skills:
- Problem solving - working through a problem
- Conflict resolution - solving a disagreement
- Communication - sending and receiving messages
- Resilience - bouncing back after a difficulty
- Resource management - making wise choices for the future
Children learn these skills through experience and practice. Our job is to facilitate the process. As we do so, both we and our children experience a wide range of positive and negative emotions. Emotional health is preserved when we identify our emotions, understand where they are coming from, and take the steps needed to resolve them in positive ways.
How can emotional health be fostered and nurtured?
Emotional health is fostered and nurtured as children learn the skills necessary for them to be successful in life. As human beings, we are born with agency, or the power to choose. The sooner we give children those experiences that help them to develop and use their agency wisely, the sooner we give them the tools they need.
From the time children are able to communicate with sound and action, we give them choices and allow them to experience consequences. It is in making choices and experiencing their consequences that emotions come to the forefront.
When they do, we guide and direct our children in how best to resolve the presenting issue. We give the emotion a name and talk about where it came from. We teach proper expression of the emotion, and how our thoughts and choices affect it. We impose consequences as needed to help children choose appropriately.
The table below gives examples of choices we can extend to our children:
Age of Child
Choices to Offer
Flavors, colors, and numbers.
Textures, shapes, and sounds.
Friends, activities, and equipment.
Style, mode of delivery, and frequency
Places, menus, and transportation.
Quantity, quality, and effort.
Earning, learning, and structure.
Planning, preparing, and marketing.
Education and job placement.
If kids come to us from strong, healthy functioning families, it makes our job easier. If they do not come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job more important.— Barbara Colorose
Who is responsible for the emotional health of children?
Children are our future. We cannot stand idly by when we see a child in pain without doing something about it. There is, however, a hierarchy of responsibility that must be understood.
Emotional health is established first in the family, and when crises occur, it is the family that is most drastically affected. Changes due to accidents, illness, death, divorce, and natural disasters affect the functioning of the family.
Oftentimes, it is the extended family that steps in, providing support and strength while the family heals. Communities also come forward, rallying around their own. Churches, schools, and non-profit organizations reach out to individuals, helping them to see that in God's eyes, we are all family, and that no one is exempt.
After a crisis, the knowledge that we are all children of God and that he loves us unconditionally enables us to find home base once again. We re-establish the feelings of trust and camaraderie that remind us of home, and feel grounded enough that we can move forward with our lives.
When we look around us, there are many who are floundering. They have either lost their emotional health due to difficult circumstances or never had it in the first place. As we reach out to them and share that unconditional love that God has given us, we help those who are hurting make the choices necessary to put solid ground underneath them. Like Matthew West sings in his song, "Do Something," we can all make a difference.
What happens when public institutions become involved?
There are many risk factors in our modern world that have lead to a dearth of individual emotional health, including the following:
- decline in two parent households
- increased sexual activity among youth
- spiritual apathy
- abuse of spouse and offspring
- dependence upon technology
- decrease in morality in the media
This has lead to a shift in the way public schools are being viewed and utilized by communities, states, and the nation. In previous generations, the focus was on teaching children the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now, since all children are expected to be a part of the public school system, they are being used as a clearing house for the institution of social reform.
Schools are expected to see that children are literate, as well as receive preventative education in the areas of nutrition, exercise, sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, recycling, and now emotional health. Although this preventative education can and may be helpful, it does not ultimately solve the problem.
Wise parents and caregivers become partners with the public school in the education of their children. The strength and support provided for the student when home and school personnel partner together gives a dramatic advantage to the learning process. Children come to school ready to learn and the things they bring home with them are talked about and acted upon.
The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.— Ezra T. Benson
What can we do?
The key to emotional health is grounding our identity in the unconditional love of God, and making those choices that keep us close to him. In doing so, we give ourselves a resource to help us work through the problems of life more successfully.
Ultimately, it is our individual responsibility to establish and maintain our own emotional health, and that of those in our immediate households. Schools, churches, communities and governments provide awareness and resources that supplement our education, but they will never take the place of what happens in the homes of the people.
Every one of us can do something to help the children in our world. The time that we take with each child individually, reassuring them that they are loved, and teaching them how to make better choices will have a direct impact on their future.
When the time comes that they are faced with a life or death situation, and the siren of suicide sounds in their ears, perhaps they will choose to live because we have helped them at some point along the way.
© 2015 Denise W Anderson