Give your children the best chance of having a happy childhood

Irish Times August 4th

In this edited extract from ‘Raising Emotionally Healthy Children’, Paul Gilligan outlines emotional health challenges children encounter, and advises parents how they can help

times-pgIf we believe our child is experiencing emotional difficulties, it is imperative that we provide them with support and seek support for ourselves. Photgraph: Thinkstock

Emotional health is best described in the context of feelings and actions. When we are emotionally healthy, we feel generally happy, content and confident, and we engage in mainly positive, enjoyable actions and activities. When we are emotionally unhealthy, we feel sad, angry, discontented and detached for a disproportionate amount of time, sometimes for no apparent reason. Moreover, we engage in predominantly negative actions and activities towards ourselves and/or others. Few of us are completely emotionally healthy all the time, and few are completely unhealthy all of the time. The boundary between being emotionally healthy and unhealthy is often difficult to define and can be different for different people.

Why is it important to be emotionally healthy? Being emotionally healthy not only makes us happier and more content but equips us to deal with the challenges life presents. For children, being emotionally healthy gives them the best chance of having a happy childhood and of growing and developing to the best of their potential.

General indicators of emotional difficulties in children If our child starts to experience emotional difficulties, he or she will demonstrate this through their behaviour, communication and feelings. Such emotional difficulties usually involve our child becoming overly anxious or worried, or becoming overly sad and depressed.

The younger or less mature our child, the more likely they are to express emotional difficulties through their behaviour. It is important to remember that many of these indicators commonly arise with most children from time to time.

It is only when they occur for no apparent reason, are out of character with our child, or persist despite our support and intervention that we should begin to consider the possibility of emotional difficulties. We know our child best so if our instinct tells us something is not right, we should pay attention to this.

What do I do if I discover my child is having emotional difficulties? Childhood emotional difficulties are not uncommon and can be managed and resolved effectively if we follow a small number of important principles. These are best described as the Seven Ss.

1. Stay calm: The first thing that we need to do if we believe or become worried that our child might be experiencing emotional difficulties is to stay calm. While some level of panic and upset is likely, it is very important that we take control of our feelings and keep our thoughts in perspective.

2. Speak to each other: It is imperative that we discuss our concerns with our child directly, no matter what age they are. It is often difficult to distinguish emotional difficulties from the normal mood swings of growing up. Therefore, the second important step to take if we become concerned that our child is having problems is to explore with him/her how they feel and why they think they feel this way. This is also the quickest and easiest way to find out how severe the difficulties might be.

Sometimes parents worry that discussing such issues will only make their child more upset and distressed. Our child might at first be reluctant to discuss their difficulties out of embarrassment. However, in the end they will be relieved to be able to tell somebody how they are really feeling.

It is important to engage in this conversation at an appropriate level for our child, using terms they understand and trying our best to understand what they are telling us in their own way.

They will most likely not have developed the capacity to understand or describe their emotions in detail as yet. It is up to us as parents to try to interpret and understand what they are trying to tell us or might mean, without imposing our own beliefs or worries on them.

3. Agree a strategy: Emotional difficulties are best approached in the same way as we would approach any other problem or difficulty we encounter in life, by forming a plan or a strategy. We need to try to agree, with our child, what might help the situation. We cannot expect our child to know exactly what might help as if they knew they would be taking these actions already. However, they will have some idea of what might help and we need to guide them towards other options. Sometimes the options might seem frightening for our child at first so we need to fully understand what they involve and we need to explain gently the benefits to them.

4. Provide support: If we believe our child is experiencing emotional difficulties, it is imperative that we provide them with support and seek support for ourselves. The most important support we can provide to our child comes from us and involves recognising that their distress is real; reinforcing how much we love them and care for them; reinforcing emotional health and psychological resilience skills; teaching them basic emotional distress management skills; and addressing things in our child’s environment.

5. Seek specialised support: Sometimes no matter how much support we provide to our child, their emotional difficulties are too severe and too engrained and we need to access specialised help. If this occurs, we firstly need to remember the first S and stay calm. Many children require specialised help and the research indicates that with the right type of help children can overcome their difficulties and live good, enjoyable lives.

The type of specialised support best suited to our child will be determined by the type of difficulties he or she is experiencing, our child’s personality and the other supports our child has in their lives.

To help us access the right option, it is best to consult our family doctor. He/she will be able to provide an initial assessment of our child’s needs and to recommend the most appropriate steps. There will also be support systems attached to our child’s school so it can be useful to access these by talking to our child’s teacher.

6. Maintain stamina: Addressing emotional difficulties takes time, so it is important that both parent and child maintain energy and engagement. Because difficulties affect both behaviour and feelings, resolution of them is rarely straightforward.

Key to maintaining our stamina is remembering that overcoming difficulties is not only possible but is to be expected. Resolving difficulties is not likely to be straightforward. Sometimes there are setbacks and sometimes it takes longer than we expect.

We all have our own very personal views and beliefs about emotional health and emotional difficulties. There are many misconceptions, which no matter how hard we try to resist, can influence our thinking. For example, some people feel that emotional difficulties are not treatable and will inevitably become serious mental health difficulties that a person never recovers from.

Others believe that emotional difficulties result from personality weaknesses which are unchangeable, while others believe that they are reflective of poor parenting and social deprivation. These beliefs are particularly damaging to children.

If our child’s emotional difficulties continue for any length of time, these misconceptions can come to the fore. Sometimes we lose hope and begin to feel our child will never recover. At other times we can get angry with our child and feel they should do more to “pull themselves together”. We might begin to blame ourselves and feel ashamed or guilty that our child has these difficulties and feel that in some way we are responsible or have let them down. These are all natural feelings that stem from our distress. At these times it is important that we refocus ourselves on the reality that any child can experience emotional difficulties and that our child will resolve these difficulties if we remain positive and hopeful.

Focusing on the positive aspects of our child’s life and what is going well for them is crucial. Even at times of distress this will help them and us move forward.

7. Seek support for ourselves: Seeing our child in distress will inevitably cause us distress. Supporting and helping them can cause us to become even more stressed, downhearted and hopeless. While doing all we can for our child we must also ensure we protect our own emotional health. If we don’t, we cannot be of any real help to our child.

In summary, no matter how much work we put into building our child’s emotional health and psychological resilience, it is possible that they will experience some emotional difficulties at some stage in their childhood if not in their adult lives. When this occurs we need to react in the knowledge that these difficulties can be managed successfully and our child can live a good and enjoyable life.

Keeping this in mind will help us to take the appropriate steps, in partnership with our child, to address the difficulties and to reduce the risk of reoccurrence.

Paul Gilligan is the chief executive of St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin. His book, Raising Emotionally Healthy Children, is published by Veritas and is available in bookshops and on The author’s earnings from sales of this book will be given to St Patrick’s Mental Health Foundation in support of the Walk in My Shoes campaign that raises funds for services to help people with mental health difficulties in Ireland.