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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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House Call: Helping kids develop tools to become resilient

Patrick J. Kennedy, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives (D-RI), and founder of the Kennedy Forum, is a longtime advocate for mental health services. He will speak in Spoakne on Jan. 31. (Mark Stehle / The Kennedy Forum)
Patrick J. Kennedy, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives (D-RI), and founder of the Kennedy Forum, is a longtime advocate for mental health services. He will speak in Spoakne on Jan. 31. (Mark Stehle / The Kennedy Forum)
By Bob Riggs and M.D. For The Spokesman-Review

On Jan. 31, Patrick Kennedy, a dedicated advocate for preventive care and the treatment of mental illnesses and addiction, will be the keynote speaker at “Making Mental Health Essential Health.” This free event at the Spokane Convention Center is intended to spark a community conversation about mental health in Spokane. Education and prevention are two key issues of Kennedy’s approach to promoting good mental health for all. In light of this exciting upcoming event, I’d like to look at what we can do as parents and adults to help children develop tools for good mental health and emotional resilience.

Although we would like to protect every child from experiencing anything bad, the reality is that a) bad things happen to everyone and b) a person who learns how to cope with things such as frustration and failure as a child will be better equipped to face the challenges of adult life. The good news is there is much a parent or involved adult can do to help a child build skills for emotional health.

Learning emotional self-calming starts in infancy. I encourage new parents to put their babies to bed while they are still awake. This helps both to develop a child’s skill at lying down and falling asleep and experience at going from upset to calm without a parent’s help.

I think that it’s good practice to allow young children to experience frustration while playing without intervening when possible. When a toddler is stacking blocks and they fall over, getting upset is normal. Getting over it without a caregiver fixing it will lay a foundation for coping with upset later in life. Children may struggle to identify their emotions and adults can help them name emotions from an early age. Learning that feelings of disappointment or anger are normal and do not last forever is critical to emotional maturity. As an adult, you can provide acknowledgment, understanding, and guidance about the emotional ups and downs of life.

I encourage parents and children to regularly talk to each other about events and emotions. The end of the day is often a good time to do this. Listen patiently, and although your first instinct may be to problem solve for your child, instead offer understanding and empathy. For example, “I understand that that made you sad. I felt bad when that kind of thing happened to me too.”

If your child is worried about an upcoming event, such as a visit to the doctor because there might be vaccinations involved, calmly encourage him or her to figure out a strategy to cope with the possibility and actuality of a shot. Learning to tolerate worry is another valuable tool in a person’s mental health toolbox.

Problem solving is another tool we all need. A good way to teach this skill is by avoiding “why” questions and asking “how” ones instead. If your child loses a favorite toy, after finding it, ask, “How do you think you can avoid loosing this in the future?” Give kids the chance to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t. If a solution doesn’t work, stay calm and encourage him or her to try a different approach to avoid losing the favorite toy.

The most important thing you need to raise resilient kids is to model resiliency yourself. This isn’t always easy. We all make mistakes and suffer mishaps. When you make a mistake admit it and talk about it with your child. When life presents challenges the way you deal with it teaches your children how to respond as well. You can learn and grow together as you both enjoy good mental health.

Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.

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