Do Not Neglect Their Mental Health Just Because They’re Children

Talk to any parent or read posts on parenting forums, and you will find that all parents have a unanimous goal, “to raise a happy and healthy child.” But, I have often reflected on what we really imply when we use the term “happy child”. Through discussions with fellow parents, I realized that a significant number of us interpret a “happy child” to be one who is not a “cry baby” and who, for the most part, is cheerful, whatever the situation. Is that a reasonable and healthy expectation?

While it may break our hearts or at times exasperate us to see our children cry, sulk or express anger, the fact of the matter is that life is about experiencing the varied emotions it is speckled with. I believe that more than a happy child, it is important to raise a mentally healthy child – one who faces all every emotion head on and learns to deal with them, instead of running away from the inner turmoil; one who acknowledges that life is not always happy or hunky dory, and that it is fine to feel sad and low in spirits some times.

I am guilty of having used the phrase “cry baby” in the past but I am glad I have come to recognize that we need to stop mocking someone who cries more than the “standards” defined by us. It is uncalled for and can actually lead to children suppressing their emotions and pretending, simply to avoid being teased or ridiculed.

When we talk about or think in relation to our child’s health, we tend to largely concentrate on the physical health of the child. But what about the nutrition of the mind and soul? Somewhere, starting from the milestone madness to the rat race as the kids grow, are we unconsciously missing out on focusing on our child’s mental health?  This happens all the more in a country like ours where we are still quite nascent in our knowledge of mental health and its importance. The grim state of affairs in this area is evident in the way we show acceptance of mental health issues.

Children need to be given wholesome development factoring in their mental health. Parents can ensure that a child is mentally stable and strong based on the environment that they provide to the child.

People suffering from depression or other mental issues are ostracized or looked down upon. Anyone visiting a counsellor or seeking professional treatment is labelled as “mad” due to which many cases are left untreated for the fear of social stigma. This is a dangerous situation to be in as it can lead to suicides and a numerous other grave crimes. Depression, the most prevailing form of mental illness, is estimated to exist in three out of every 100 people living in urban areas like Mumbai.

As per statistics of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the average suicide rate in India is 21.1 for every 100,000 people. While the absence of open dialogue around mental health is a key hurdle, experts say this also adds to the problem of less resources and doctors available in this domain.

Mental health of the child is as important as physical health, if not more, because it determines how a child behaves and acts throughout the journey of life. Mental fitness includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It helps establish how we cope with stress and adversity, handle success, connect to others, and make choices. Right from childhood through adolescence and throughout adulthood, mental health is crucial.

It is essential to raise awareness, not just about mental health issues, but also about what we can do as parents to build the right foundation.  This is certainly not easy as the brain is a complex organ influenced by several external factors. But, there are multiple ways by which we can help our kids into becoming mentally healthy individuals.

Let your children be – A cliched advice in today’s world, but it really is imperative that we let our kids be. By all means, we must encourage them to give their best and facilitate in tapping their potential without putting pressure. However, there is a thin line which when crossed can make us go from being encouraging to being pushy. The trick is to be perceptive to their stress levels. If you can sense they are not enjoying it, please stop pushing.

Set a healthy example – We often talk about healthy competition and expect our kids to be sporting in situations wherein they lose. But are we demonstrating such behavior too? Are we handling a win or a loss in the right spirit, or are we behaving like sore losers or being boastful and arrogant about ours or our kids’ achievements? Please introspect and set the right example.

Teach them to contribute to the community It is of paramount importance to teach our kids to be grateful, not just for what they have been blessed with, but also to other people who have a positive influence on their lives in any way. This will instil in them a sense of belonging to the world and helping others will come naturally to them. Also, instead of preaching that they should help, because it comes back, tell them to lend a hand anyway. They should learn to treat everyone with respect and sensitivity, irrespective of whether those people can be of any assistance to them or not.

Make them understand that we are all special – We are all unique and special in our own ways, so please steer clear of “if they can, why can’t you?” scenarios. It is plain unfair and unwarranted!

Encourage them to take up a sport Focus on physical fitness right from the beginning, as physical health ultimately does exert influence on the mind. Motivate them to indulge in any sport they love. There is ample research to prove the benefits from sports and how they can improve overall health.

children need to be encouraged to grow in their own manner and pace. Comparing them with others or wishing that you child was more “extrovert” will not help in the child’s development.

Teach them to appreciate the good in others – If our kids notice us appreciating the good in others, there are high chances that they will pick up this trait from us. Keep discussing with them every now and then about their observation of people and things. Perception of various aspects of this world is a key characteristic of a human being. There is inspiration all around – inspire them to get inspired!

It is essential to keep evolving – Children should realize that it is vital to keep evolving to become better than their own previous selves, rather than worrying about being better than others. They need to understand that someone else “not doing well” will not make them superior, so it is pointless to have anyone else as a frame of reference. We need to be the guiding light that helps them look within to identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

Life is a sea of emotions While it is great if our children learn to find happiness in small things, they also need to accept that it’s fine to cry or feel jealous and upset at times. These and a lot more emotions are human, and there is nothing shameful or bad about experiencing them. What defines us is how we react to these emotions and tackle them.

Egg them on to pursue their hobbies Pursuing a hobby can contribute enormously in making a person mentally and emotionally strong. Not only does it give immense happiness but it is a great outlet while being confronted with destructive feelings. For example, I love dancing and it helps me manage distress or anger. Support your children as they follow their passions.

Acknowledge their individualityWhile it is hard to stop thinking of our children as our extensions, we have to accept that they are individuals with a mind of their own. The sooner we do that, the better it is for them. We can be their guide and facilitator, and can watch their back, but we must abstain from controlling their lives in any way. This also helps in building a healthy parent-child relationship which again directly affects their mental health in the long run.

Teach them to let go and forgive, but also to stand up for themselves Forgiving is an act which benefits us more than the ones we forgive. It gives us mental peace and aids us in moving ahead. This is something we can start teaching our children early on. At the same time, we also need to teach them to stand up for themselves. This judgement of when to let go and when to stick their ground will come to them with time and experience, but we can surely keep talking to them about it.

Self-love is very important – I cannot stress enough on the significance of urging children to love, respect and embrace their own selves. This is something my own mother did for us and I am indebted to her for that. Self-love and self-acceptance are instrumental in driving happiness intrinsically and also ensure you don’t get affected when someone tries to put you down.

You may not always get the stars and the moon, my child As parents, our love for our children makes us wish they get everything they want in life. But, we know that practically speaking, they cannot get everything. Teach them right from the beginning that one cannot have it all in life, especially at the same time. A major cause of people getting stressed is their desire for more. This also makes it tough for them to take decisions at crucial junctures because they tend to fancy having it all and choosing becomes difficult. Our children need to learn to prioritize. This is what always helps me stand by my decisions, be it quitting my corporate job or those affecting my personal relationships.

Developing a child’s hobbies can go a long way into ensuring that they find a source to re-energize and rejuvenate themselves.

Do not try to change their core nature Just like we all have our distinctive personalities, children have theirs too. An extrovert child or naughty child is not better than an introvert child. We do not need to make our kids “social” or “naughty” or “talkative” or whatever else we feel is preferable. Do not coax them into being someone they are not and are not comfortable with. As long as they are connecting to the people and world in their own way, it is all good.

It is OK to have fears Do not feel vexed about them getting over their fears. It could be any kind of fear – stage fright or fear of a particular animal or sound et al. Give them opportunities to get over the fears and be there for them, but don’t get aggressive or forceful.

Apologizing doesn’t make anyone small – According to me, ego is a huge hindrance to mental peace. It can destroy you without you even realizing it. Teaching our kids the virtue of apologizing is necessary. They need to be taught that it is absolutely fine to own up to one’s mistakes and apologize, instead of getting defensive. They need to know that in no way does this reduce their self-worth.

It’s OK to say ‘No’This is something I learned much later in life and the hard way. As parents, we should avoid making our children do things they aren’t comfortable with, just to please someone. If they can learn to say ‘No’ early on without feeling guilty, it will help them a great deal throughout life in various situations. This does not mean that they shouldn’t do anything to make others happy. It’s just that it should not be at the cost of encumbering themselves with unwanted baggage.

Rejection is a part of life Just like it is OK for them to say ‘No’, it is important for them to understand that being refused for something is equally all right. Not everyone will love them or help them so they need to learn to respect other people’s opinions and sentiments and move on.

Keep the communication channels open – It’s your choice to be a lenient parent or not based on your parenting philosophy, but either way please ensure you keep the communication channels open with your children. Unless your children are comfortable sharing their feelings and thoughts with you, you will not be able to support them as needed. Parents need to get a peek into the little minds to be able to lead them on the right path.

It’s not the end of the world It is extremely challenging to deal with catastrophes in life. Be it the death of a dear one or a huge financial loss, it can shake our very existence. If we can prepare our children for such circumstances, they will be able to sail through them with maturity. A friend of mine once advised her son to grieve and take his own time to heal after her husband’s death. Her love, comforting words and rational, coherent advice helped her son come out of it eventually with an optimistic approach.

Happy and positive atmosphere at home – Needless to say that the atmosphere and environment during a child’s rearing plays a major role in their personality development. As per research, this is a prime factor that can affect the mental health of a child. So, we need to watch our dynamics as a family unit and be loving, civil, cheerful and positive ourselves to provide a positive upbringing to our children. This doesn’t mean we never argue in front of them but we need to do so respectfully. This also doesn’t mean we never cry in front of them because strength is not in “not crying” but in picking up the pieces and moving forward.

Relax enough While this may sound like an inane point, there is evidence that lack of rest and sleep can actually affect mental well-being. We often tend to link relaxation to laziness, glorify those who slog it out and then end up comparing. We should refrain from doing so and instead encourage kids to be active and relax, following their body’s cues.

Get professional help at the right time Do not hesitate to get professional help before it’s too late, if you have any concerns about your child’s mental health. Yes it’s still a taboo but who cares? Your child comes first, isn’t it?

Parenting is so much more intuitive than a calculated effort. Following all of the above to the hilt is easier said than done. But, once we are convinced about the things that we should or should not do, we can strive to be the parent we have imagined ourselves to be. It is a continuous learning process and I am confident that together we can raise a mentally stronger and healthier generation. So, next time when we think about our child’s health, let us make it a point to not restrict our thoughts to just their iron and vitamin levels!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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