Frederick's Child Magazine - April/May 2011

The Relationship Between Mental & Physical Health In Well-Being

L. Alexandra Mirabelli, Psy.D. 0000-00-00 00:00:00

Well-being is defined as the state of being healthy, happy, or prosperous. This indicates that the physical state of health, the mental state of happiness, and the environmental state of prosperity are interrelated. One of the most important things that parents can do to foster well-being in their children is to promote a positive environment which takes this interrelationship into account. Understanding the connection between physical and mental health is essential in supporting healthy development. Some ways parents can support their children’s well-being include: Address the stress. Stress plays a key role in the relationship between mental and physical health. As a parent, you have undoubtedly experienced the phenomenon of getting through a stressful week of work, holiday activity, or other situation which required you to be “on,” only to come down with a cold just as you were looking forward to settling back into your usual routine. Cortisol, a hormone released during periods of stress, probably kept you alert and motivated during that period of stressful activity. Mild fluctuation in cortisol levels throughout the day is normal, with cortisol in children and adults generally at higher levels in the morning and somewhat lower levels in the evening. For most of us, stress is associated with higher cortisol levels and chronically high levels are associated with a number of diseases and illnesses. Helping children effectively manage their stress keeps their cortisol levels stable, leading to better physical health. Conversely, children who develop good physical health habits are more likely to handle life’s emotional challenges. Stress signifies a disruption of equilibrium in one’s life. One factor to consider with children is that they may feel disrupted by experiences which adults have learned to take in stride. For instance, a parent may adjust to a minor change in his work schedule with little disturbance. However, this change may have a more significant impact on his child who was not prepared for the shift and did not anticipate how it would impact her routine. For example, if the child is accustomed to being dropped off at the bus stop by her father on his way to work during the week, she may feel unsettled when her routine is disrupted due to his new work schedule. She may also feel a sense of loss regarding the special time she spent with her father in the mornings. Preparing children for changes—small and large--can give them the extra time they need to think things through, minimizing some of the disruption and subsequent stress as they adjust. Establish and maintain routines. Children thrive on routines which help establish a sense of security and help children learn to manage their time and attention. Routines should be consistent enough so the child knows what to expect, but flexible enough so he or she can make adjustments as needed. When children understand their family’s routine, they understand their role in the family. This fosters confidence and selfesteem. It also reduces anxiety associated with uncertainty and lack of control. Bedtime routines support healthy sleep habits which are essential for mental and physical health. Dinnertime routines instill the value of spending time together as a family and promote social development, as well as emphasize the role of nutrition in health. Talk it over. One of the most important ways children develop an understanding of their experiences is through language. Talking about their experiences helps them develop their own ideas and opinions and understand their own feelings. Parents can encourage this by engaging in child-directed discussions about their child’s day. This involves asking the child general, open-ended questions and allowing him to talk about what he chooses. With younger children, parents can offer observations of what they have seen the child do, which allows him to reflect on experiences and feelings which he may not yet have the vocabulary to express. Get moving. The benefits of exercise on physical and mental health are well-documented. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Adequate exercise not only reduces the risk of obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and other health problems in children, but also reduces the risk of depression and promotes better sleep. Integrating exercise into the family routine, such as taking a walk or playing an active game after dinner, is a simple and inexpensive way to instill this value and reap the benefits of exercise. Strengthen the bond. Healthy bonds between parents and children are associated with healthy brain development in children. The parent-child bond also sets the stage for the child’s relationships outside of the family as they get older. Spending some one-on-one time with a child is an important part of building—and maintaining—a secure attachment. Playing a game, doing a craft, or just enjoying a snack together are simple ways to support the parent-child bond and build self-esteem, develop critical- thinking skills, support attention and learning, and develop social skills. Be a role model. Children watch their parents’ every move, then incorporate their observations into their own behaviors. One of the most significant ways parents can help their children develop good physical and mental health habits is by living a healthy lifestyle and modeling appropriate behavior and good coping skills. Children who observe their parents taking care of themselves physically and emotionally, treating others with respect, and working to reach a goal are more likely to develop those habits themselves. These are only a few of the many important strategies parents can use which support both mental and physical health. Asking for outside help or seeking a professional consultation can also be helpful and can provide parents with even more tools to support their child’s well-being.

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