Developing emotionally healthy children

A new school year begins. Another opportunity for our children to succeed academically, socially or athletically. As our children return to their classrooms we are left to wonder what kind of experience will they have at school this year. Will they experience academic, social or athletic success? Or will they experience struggles that will keep them from achieving success?

But what does it take to succeed? Who defines success in these areas?

Well, for two of these areas success is defined in a very concrete manner. Academically we define success by the grades our children receive. And athletically we define success by team victories or improvements in our individual athletic abilities.

But for one of these the answer is not so simple. How do we define social success?

Is it the number of friends we have at school? The number of friends in Facebook? Or MySpace? Or followers on Twitter? Is it the number of calls, letters, or e-mails we receive each day? Or the number of invitations to birthday parties and other events?

We may have a strong-willed, outgoing child or perhaps a more quiet and reserved one but none are immune to the possibility of facing barriers such as loneliness, fear, bullying, social isolation and rejection that may keep them from experiencing success.

We currently have academic supports to help our kids achieve academic success through tutoring and other sources and we have athletic activities with coaches and trainers to teach children how to achieve athletic success, but we do not have equal support to help our kids achieve social success. Good mental health allows children to develop socially, and intellectually, build self-esteem, learn new skills and develop a positive mental outlook. It is a necessity.

One of the problems is that we are much more comfortable helping kids in areas that produce concrete and almost immediate results. If a child is not performing well in math he or she can receive tutoring and parents and teachers will be able to see immediate results by the child's performance in the next assignment or test. In the world of sports a child can receive specific coaching on how to pass, hit, run or jump and the parents and coaches can have immediate results by witnessing the child perform that function and measuring the level of improvement.

As a society we are still not very comfortable with accepting the need for social success. We tend to accept antiquated stereotypes such as "boys don't cry" or "don't be a tattle-tell" and ignore the damage that emotional pain can cause. Although we can witness a child's emotional pain from being left out of a party invitation or from being bullied, we don't have a concrete and immediate way to measure their ability to improve socially or to bounce back from, for someone their age, such a traumatic event.

And locally we know this happens, we only need to look back at the spring and remember the case of the young boy who committed suicide because of bullying - and no one knew the pain he was in until it was too late.

Our children's mental and emotional needs may not be as obvious as their physical needs, but they are just as important. Some kids will develop skills for good mental health faster than others, but we can help all of our kids develop these skills in order to help them achieve social success.

Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association) is the country's leading nonprofit dedicated to helping all people live mentally healthier lives (www.mentalhealthamerica.net). They offer these guidelines to help every reader support their children's mental health:

Communicate. Spend time every day listening and talking to your child about what is happening in their lives. Share emotions and feelings with your children.

Give children unconditional love. Children need to know that your love does not depend on their accomplishments.

Nurture children's confidence and self-esteem. Praise and encourage your children, and set realistic goals that test their abilities. Accept mistakes and failures as a part of life.

Encourage children to play. Playtime is important to children's emotional development. Play helps children be creative, develop problem-solving skills and self-control, and learn how to get along with others.

Give appropriate guidance and discipline when necessary. Be firm, but kind and realistic with your expectations. The goal is not to control the child, but to help him or her learn self-control.

Provide a safe and secure environment. Fear can be very real for a child. When they are frightened, try to find out why. Respond by being loving, patient and reassuring, not critical.

When your child has an emotional problem, sometimes all it takes is a hug, kiss and a smile from you to make them feel better. However, sometimes children can develop emotional problems that will not go away, no matter how much love and support you give them. The following signs can help you determine if your child needs help from a professional. By identifying possible problems early, your child can be more easily treated.

· Decline in school performance

· Poor grades despite strong efforts

· Constant worry or anxiety

· Repeated refusal to go to school or to take part in normal activities

· Hyperactivity or fidgeting

· Persistent nightmares

· Continuous or frequent aggression or "acting out"

· Continuous or frequent rebellion and/or temper tantrums

· Depression, sadness or irritability

As parents, we believe we can fix almost anything in our children's lives but sometimes more help is needed. Nearly one in five children has a diagnosable mental health problem. If you are concerned about your child's mental health, consult with his or her teachers, guidance counselor or other adults that may have information about his or her behavior.

If you think there is a problem, call Georgia's Crisis and Access Line for a referral to the provider closest to you at 1-800-715-4225 24 hours a day, seven days per week.

Pierluigi Mancini, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of CETPA, Georgia's only Latino Behavioral Health Agency. Dr. Mancini is also the Chairman of the Georgia Mental Health Planning and Advisory Council and a Board Member of the Grady Hospital Corporation. For more information, visit www.cetpa.org or call 770-662-0249.

People Helping People is a weekly column written by the executive directors of nonprofit organizations in Gwinnett County. Need help or know someone that does? The Gwinnett Helpline directs callers to the appropriate nonprofit agency. Call 770-995-3339.