How to Nurture Your Child's Emotional and Mental Well-Being - Part 1

Updated: Feb 22, 2020

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As moms, knowing what it takes to care for our children’s physical well-being comes pretty naturally. Nurturing their emotional and social development, well-being, and resilience, on the other hand, can feel really overwhelming at times.

Maureen Francois, licensed clinical social worker, certified play therapist, and the co-owner of Wild Hope Counseling, joins me today for part one of this two-part interview to talk about mindset, emotions, and daily steps we can take to foster our child’s mental health.

In today's episode, we discuss:

  • Practical ways to nurture your child's social and emotional development daily

  • Why 30 seconds of introspection at the end of your day is a game-changer

  • Making your child's environment a 'yes environment'

  • 'Noticing' as a strategy for teaching emotional literacy

  • Accepting your feelings as valid, and helping your child accept their feelings as valid, too

  • How to deal with undesirable behavior

  • How to prepare for outings and prevent meltdowns

  • What to say and do during a meltdown

Practical Ways to Nurture Your Child's Social and Emotional Development Daily

Although there are relatively clear guidelines and milestones for physical and cognitive developmental stages, our children's emotional development - specifically from birth to five years old - does not receive nearly as much attention, even in conversations with our pediatricians.

'Social and emotional development' boil down to the day-to-day interactions you have with your children. You are fostering your child's mental health by providing love, providing connection, by laughing with them, etc.

We can break this down into very tangible day-to-day experiences that can foster mental health for our children. Two things that are especially important when we are considering the foundation of social and emotional well-being:

1. Creating an environment of safety.

There are multiple facets to this. First, physical safety. For example, maybe your child is running towards the street:

  • You use the words "that is not safe." It is beneficial for safety to be part of our day-to-day language when talking with our kiddos.

  • Narrating your day can promote your child's social and emotional learning. You may say something like, "That car pulled out in front of me and that was not safe." And then, that becomes a language and dialogue that your children are used to hearing, so that they ultimately can implement it for themselves.

  • In addition to verbal language, our children also notice our body language. Going back to that moment when your child was running towards the street, your body probably responded with quick or abrupt movements. Your child will start to recognize the body language that accompanies an unsafe situation. All of this contributes to building awareness of what is happening around them when something isn't safe. And although a child does not fully have the language to tell you, "this is exactly what was happening when I was running out into the street," they will remember how it felt, or how mom responded in that moment. This will help them be able to know, 'oh, if my body is feeling a little bit weird, maybe I'm not feeling safe. Who is someone that I can go to to keep me safe?"

The other piece of this is emotional safety. For example, if siblings are hitting each other, we can talk about safe touch and non-safe touch. We are laying a foundation of understanding: understanding what things are safe in my world, what things are safe at home, what things are safe and unsafe at the playground, etc.

2. Connecting with your child in the mundane.

Playful interaction, eye contact, safe and playful touch (like rubbing or scratching your child's back), and reading a book together are all examples of this. Engaging in a variety of these throughout the day can foster a sense of belonging so that children feel loved, and feel like they matter.

When we as parents are able to reiterate feeling words, safety words, or reinforce that feeling of belonging with our child, their brains are re-wiring and creating connections about different experiences, or different feelings within their body. The big word for this is 'neural connections.' The brain is developing the most between the first three to five years of a child's life - that is when most of the neural connections are happening. That being said, children have room and resiliency to reform some of those connections. So don't be so hard on yourself when you get frustrated or overwhelmed or short-tempered, and certainly don't feel like you have to get everything right 100 percent of the time or else.

Just Say No to Play-Doh, and Why 30 Seconds of Introspection at the End of the Day is a Game-Changer

At the end of the day, are you able to look back and recognize specific instances when you were feeling especially set off or frustrated? Chances are, there is something about that situation that you can tweak next time in order to create a different, better outcome. For example, maybe having Play-Doh as an option inside the house isn't worth how frustrated you feel when it's all over the carpet. So, maybe Play-Doh becomes an outside activity.

How can we set ourselves, as parents, up for success, while also setting our kids up for success throughout the day? Take a quick 30 seconds after the kids are down for bed and ask yourself, "What stands out about my day?" What do you think was your overall feeling? Did you feel like you and your kids were vibin' or just a little bit off? Next, ask yourself, "What could we do different tomorrow?" The CliffsNote version:

  • 'This went great'

  • 'Huh, this could have been better'

  • 'What can we do differently and how can we enjoy each other a little bit more?'

Make Your Child's Environment a 'Yes Environment'

Think about how can you make your environment and your children's environment a 'yes' environment... so that you don't have to keep saying (and so that they don't have to keep hearing) 'stop doing that', 'don't do this', 'you can't touch that'. Our children should wake up and feel success when they walk into the living room, and success when they walk into the kitchen. Ask yourself what tweaks you can make to their environment in order to help make that possible for them. By setting your children up for success in this way, you're setting yourself up for success, too!

When we start our day in a mindset of positive intent - meaning we are viewing our day as though it will be successful - we share that positive intent with our children, too. This can really shift how the day goes, whereas if we're fostering a mindset of dread ("Oh great, he's going to wake up and wreak havoc on our whole house," or "No one is going to get along today"), then we've already forfeited our day. When we set our environment, and when we have our mindset of positive intent, then we're already a big step closer to feeling more successful as a parent, and more successful as a kiddo.

'Noticing' as a Strategy for Teaching Emotional Literacy

Maureen recommends practicing what she calls 'noticing,' both for yourself, and with your children. This means noticing things like...

  1. What is going well and what is not going so well throughout the day,

  2. Where you are focusing your energy, and

  3. Your emotions throughout the day.

From here, you may build a narrative around this into which you invite your child. For example:

  • Yourself: "Mommy is feeling pretty frustrated right now."

  • Your child: If a sibling grabs a toy away, you may say, "You look like you might be feeling kind of sad. You were hoping to play with that toy."

  • Other people: If a child at story time was crying, you may say, "That boy over there is really sad."

This applies to negative emotions and positive emotions alike (such as happiness or excitement).

'Noticing' builds emotional literacy: we are increasing our emotional literacy for ourselves, as well as helping our children's emotional literacy 'turn on.' Specifically, as they're hearing statements like, "Mom's frustrated," or, "You are sad," our hope is that they start using these words in moments of upset, too. As you help your child build awareness of his or her emotions, you can then create strategies and problem-solve with your child to explore what can go differently next time. Tina Bryson has a phrase for this: "Once you name it, then you contain it."

Mommies' Feelings are Valid, and How to Deal with Undesirable Feelings and Behaviors

It is okay for you to have any feeling throughout the day, and for you to allow yourself to truly feel it. From there, you can explore what you can do or want to do with that feeling. This is what we would want for our children, and this is what we should practice for ourselves.

With both our children and with ourselves, there is this notion that, when a feeling or behavior happens, we have to 'fix' it and it has to change immediately. It is understandable why we have these beliefs: they may be frustrating, uncomfortable, undesirable, and/or socially unacceptable. A better strategy:

  1. Begin by taking a couple of moments to name the feeling.

  2. If you can, try to help them find regulation or calm in their body.

  3. Recognize whether it would be better to talk through the situation a couple of minutes later, or even a couple of hours later, rather than right in that moment. Contrary to popular belief, Maureen points out that some research suggests that those conversations don't necessarily have to happen immediately in order to be effective. You may reasonably conclude, "Okay, this happened before nap time. They're tired. They're not ready for us to talk about why they couldn't throw the ball at their brother." Maybe after they wake up while they're having a snack, ask an open-ended question like, "So, before nap time you threw that ball at your brother, what do you think about that?"

  4. Remember to this for yourself, too: we don't have to fix how we're feeling, or come up with a solution immediately in the moment.

Preparing for Outings and Preventing Meltdowns

A couple of things to briefly think through:

  • Are their basic needs met? (i.e., Have they had a snack? Have they had water? "Okay, we just had lunch, they just took a nap." Check, check.)

  • Has any part of today veered from the usual routine? (i.e., Have I had an especially busy morning? Did I maybe have an appointment that I usually don't have? Have we had less time together so far today?)

  • Have you had moments of intentional time with your child sprinkled throughout the day? If not, can you do something right now, such as read a short book, to help nurture connection and that crucial sense of belonging?

What To Say and Do During a Meltdown

First of all, you being there with your child is the number one thing. Sitting with them - maybe it's in the Target aisle, or maybe you move a little out of the way - and you tell them, "I'm here with you. You're safe." Being lovingly, fully present with them through that time is the most beautiful thing that you could do for your child. What that shows them is that, "No matter how you feel, I'm here, you matter, and you are important."

Granted, as a mom it's not always that easy. It's like, "Oh my gosh, what are these people around me thinking?" But through that experience, your child knows mom is here, she cares about me, I am so loved, and even though I just lost it at target, she still loves me. That will make a huge impact, forever. Furthermore, it shows them that their emotions are important, and if every emotion is important, then it is also valid. So that's the number one thing: you're there, and you're showing them they matter - and that is just so beautiful.

The second piece of this is redirecting the behavior with our kiddos. Getting down a little bit below their eye level is something that can be helpful. So maybe that's they're standing and you sit in a chair. At Target, that might mean they're in the cart and you're crouched down beside them. Some things that that could portray is like, "I am not this adult that's telling you what to do. Again, you're heard, you matter. Sometimes I'll be talking with kiddos and I can see that shift of when you get down on their level and they feel almost empowered a little bit. And in a moment of upset they're probably not going to show that as much. But if we start to foster that a little bit, and I'd be curious if anyone tries it if they notice a difference or anything like that.

Go to part two with Maureen.

Go to an episode about picky eaters (coming soon!)

About Maureen

Maureen Francois is a wife, a mother to two daughters, Licensed clinical social worker, certified play therapist and the co-owner of Wild Hope Counseling. Maureen is passionate about supporting women through the process of mothering as well as equipping parents and children to feel more successful in their day to day lives.