How to build your baby's mental health
A psychologist's tips on helping your child to feel safe and protected.
New babies are a lot of work, and parents experience a wide range of emotions when they have a new baby. They feel joy, frustration, fatigue and nervousness. There's no reason to be frightened of having mixed emotions about a new baby.
When should I start thinking about my baby's mental health? How can I promote positive mental health in my family? Psychologist and child development expert Dr. Lisa Damour answers these questions and more.
I’m about to become a parent. What should I expect in terms of emotions and stress?
Becoming a parent for the first time is a huge transition. It will change everything you do. Every aspect of your life will be different now. And one of the things that we know about stress is that it happens any time we have to adapt to new conditions. And adapting to a new baby is a new condition. So expect stress. That doesn't mean anything is going wrong. It just means that you're getting used to becoming a parent. And this will get easier with time.
At what age should I start thinking about my child’s mental health?
You should start thinking about your child's mental health right from the moment you meet. From the very beginning, your child will look to you for love, learning and safety. When you provide your child a warm and tender relationship, help them to feel protected, comfort them when they're upset and help them navigate the world, that's how you lay the groundwork for a lifetime of mental health.
How does stress affect the emotional development of my child?
There's a stress response that gets activated when babies become frightened or they worry that someone has forgotten them or their needs aren't getting met. Our job as parents is to help them to calm that stress response. When that stress response has calmed, everything goes back to normal and your baby actually learns that the world is a safe and reliable place. Some babies don't learn that. They are in stressful situations and they don't have the emotional support that they need to feel calm again. When children are in stressful situations and they don't have a loving adult to help them feel better, that can lay the groundwork for emotional difficulties down the line.
How can I learn to show affection and love to my child if I did not grow up with those things myself?
Parenting is hard. It's something that everybody has to learn how to do. And it's something that we can actually do a really good job with if we set our minds to it. There's so much to focus on in becoming a new parent. Here are the things that will make a huge difference and will help make sure that you give your child what you wish you had had yourself: Be attentive to your baby, pay attention to what they need, be responsive to their needs and just make sure you're a warm and steady presence. That will be everything your baby needs to get a great start in life.
How can I promote positive mental health in my family?
Decades of research have taught us that what children need are two things: They need home to be warm and they need to feel like people around there like them and they need life at home to be predictable. They need to know what to expect. They need a good sense of structure and reliability around them. So for the warmth part, enjoy your baby, enjoy your child, play with them, talk to them, cuddle them. Doing those things will feel good for your child and feel good for you, and it actually releases natural hormones that are going to help you bond with your baby.
Is it okay for me to show emotions like being angry or sad in front of my children?
You are your child's first teacher and your child's going to learn all about feelings from you. So when you have feelings, especially painful ones, you're going to want to think about how you express them, to express them in a way that is honest but not overwhelming or frightening. And then you're going to want to model how you manage having a painful or difficult feeling, such as finding an appropriate way to cope with it, going outside, taking a walk, reaching out to somebody for support. Here's the most important thing to remember: The definition of mental health is not that you feel calm and relaxed and happy all the time or that your child does. The definition of mental health is having the right feeling at the right time and knowing how to manage it appropriately.
What should I do when I feel overwhelmed?
What are some coping techniques for dealing with stress. If you're feeling overwhelmed, you should definitely take time to manage your own stress and there are lots of good ways to cope with stress to help bring it under control. First make sure you've got good social support. Everyone needs somebody to tell their worries to, and a person or a group who helps them to feel connected and accepted. Another thing that can help you if you're feeling really stressed is to find a happy distraction. Sometimes we just need to take a mental vacation. So maybe you want to read a book for a while or go spend time with someone you care about. Just take your mind off of whatever is making you stressed. That will help you reset and feel better. Finally, an important way we take care of ourselves when we’re stressed is to take really good care of our bodies, make sure you're getting enough sleep, eat well and get as much physical activity as you need. Those are the things that you can do that will take good care of you and help you take good care of your baby.
Dr. Lisa Damour is a psychologist, author, New York Times contributor and mother of two.