Children’s Mental Health

July is Mental Illness Awareness month – a time to reflect on mental health and give thought to how we can go about attaining it.

The World Health Organisation defines health as  “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition focuses on the positive aspects of mental health. Our mental health is part of our overall health and enables us to cope effectively with our daily life, be productive and reach our full potential. It is, therefore, well worth looking after.

Everyone is susceptible to mental health problems, irrespective of age, gender, culture or socio-economic group. Feelings such as fear, anxiety, irritability and sadness are common and are generally of short duration. However, if they last longer and begin disrupting our daily functioning, they could be signs of something more serious. Biological factors, our current environment and negative life experiences all contribute to our mental health difficulties.

Twenty-five % of children suffer with mental health complications. Parents play an important role in promoting their young ones’ mental health. There are several ways in which this can be done:

  1. Provide unconditional love: It is important that children are loved unconditionally. They need to know that whatever mistakes they make, whatever grades they achieve, however “naughty” they are, they will still be accepted wholeheartedly.
  2. Discipline consistently and lovingly: Teach your children the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and be the perfect role model. The consequences for incorrect behaviour should be fair and consistent. Set reasonable limits and allow your child to make age appropriate choices.
  3. Boost self-esteem: Children rely on adults to assist in developing positive self-esteem and confidence. A child that is always experiencing disapproval grows up believing they are unworthy. A child’s behavior needs to be separated from them as a person – bad behavior does not mean a bad person. Be on the look out for positive behaviours and praise them rather than only reprimanding unsuitable behaviours. For every negative comment there should be 5 positive ones.
  4. Provide time for play: Children learn through play which contributes to  both their physical and mental health. Setting aside time regularly to play with your child one-on-one, is a great bonding opportunity which increases their sense of worth and self-esteem.

Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry refers to the competition, jealousy and fighting that occurs in many instances between brothers and sisters. It generally begins with the introduction of the new sibling and can carry on throughout childhood right into adulthood. Children have a strong need to grow up feeling safe and secure in their parent’s love and sometimes feel threatened when a baby arrives in their family. It is often hard for a child, especially the first-born, to accept and love their new sibling. Parents have to devote a lot of time to the needs of the new baby resulting in the first child feeling left out and competing for attention. They are also forced to share things such as toys, sweets, personal space and clothing, that they have never had to share before. As they grow older, feelings of being treated unfairly when one child receives something the other may not have – a later bedtime, a new toy – lead to jealousy and resentment. Unlike friends, siblings cannot be chosen and often personality differences can result in them simply not liking each other.

Although sibling rivalry is common it can be extremely frustrating and upsetting for parents. It is difficult to know how to deal with the fighting, as stepping in to resolve the issue often creates the impression that one child is being favoured. This exacerbates the problem and can cause resentment for one child whilst encouraging the other child to rely on its parent’s help to rescue him. It is important to try not to take sides, to remain uninvolved and to give them the opportunity to try and resolve their own differences.

Although it is best to let children sort out their own conflict, it is often difficult for them, as they don’t have the necessary emotional maturity and conflict resolution skills. If the situation is getting out of hand or either child is being emotionally or physically bullied, parents need to intervene and mediate. Working with both children and guiding them to deal with disputes in a healthy manner teaches skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

When children argue, parents should not get drawn into the emotions. Children must be encouraged to calm down by finding their own safe space. This must not be seen as a punishment but rather as a cooling down period. Once they are calmer they can be helped to find a win-win solution – they can perhaps take turns with the wanted toy, find a game they can play together or share the last piece of cake. This is a perfect opportunity to teach negotiation and compromise.

In order to curtail rivalry amongst siblings, the following points should be considered:

  • Show each child that they are loved unconditionally. Never, ever take sides or compare your children – each child is unique and has its own strengths
  • Don’t dismiss angry, resentful feelings. Validate them and teach your children how to deal with them in a positive manner
  • Structure family time when everyone has fun and no-one has to compete for attention. Also spend one-on-one time with each child to enable them to enjoy your undivided attention
  • Be the best role model – children will deal with conflict in the same way they observe their parents dealing with it
  • Children have a right to their own possessions – they should not be forced to share everything
  • Allow children their own space for play and for friends. Encourage separate play dates
  • Teach children from a young age that everything cannot be equal. Different children have different needs and should be treated as individuals
  • Establish rules for acceptable behavior. Name calling, hitting or damaging property should never be tolerated
  • Draw up schedules to eliminate disputes, e.g. TV programs, whose turn it is to sit in the front of the car
  • Teach your children how to deal with teasing
     Published in Get It Magazine (Ballito.Umhlanga) – March 2015


Children’s Comments

Being allowed to enter into a child’s world in play therapy sessions has been, and remains, a great privilege. I learn so much from each and every little person.


” You go for counselling when you feel angry and sad and the counsellor cheers you up”  – Aron (8 Years old)

“Don’t wish your life away – it’s hard being an adult” – Luca (8 years old)

“Things just change when you’re an adult – it’s just the way it is. It’s tough luck” – Gabriel (9 years old)

” I don’t understand adults – they make the rules and then they break them” – Gabriel (9 years old)

” I don’t understand what ‘back chatting’ is. I listen to what the teacher says to me, I think about it and then give her my opinion….” – Gabriel (9 years)