Parenting with Dr. Ramey: Mental disorder or normal childhood problem?

“I’m feeling exhausted, hopeless, and I don’t enjoy the things I once loved,” declares a 12-year-old girl in the romantic comedy “Home Again.” Her younger sister remarks that her older sibling heard those words from “a Zoloft commercial … obviously!” It’s not only a funny conversation between a mom and her daughters, but perhaps a positive reflection of kids being more open about their emotional well-being.

Helping kids be as tuned into their mental health as they are to their physical health is important. One study estimated that about one in three children will exhibit symptoms of a mental disorder sometime during their childhood. This is difficult to understand. Compared to previous generations, youngsters today are perhaps the most privileged in the history of childhood.

More from Dr. Ramey: Taking care of yourself

We’ll never have enough therapists to treat all of these kids, so let’s consider a different approach. Here’s how parenting practices can be changed to reduce the likelihood of kids developing problems.

1. Focus on what’s important. Children’s self-control skills are the keys to their success. This means kids need to learn at an early age how to delay acting on an immediate impulse for the sake of getting something better later on. This is not an innate skill, but can be taught to young children. Stop worrying about how your child feels, and pay more attention to how they are acting. Children with high self-control skills perform better at school, have more meaningful relationships, and live happier lives.

2. Don’t overreact to normal childhood problems. Many of our kids expect and even demand that their worlds be perfect. Parents are to blame for these misperceptions, in their overzealous desire to protect kids from uncomfortable situations. We’re leaving our children ill-prepared to deal with the normal unpleasantries of life.

Parenting with Dr. Ramey: Raising genuine, not entitled, kids

Children need to learn to deal with frustrations, failure, ridicule, and lots of painful feelings. Don’t dwell on these distressing situations, but rather equip your child with the skills to successfully manage tough times.

3. Send the right message. Promote your child’s emotional resilience by focusing on the following. First, bad feelings will pass, and you are in control of your reactions to stressful events. I love the quote that you should “never put the key to your happiness in someone else’s pocket.”

Second, don’t catastrophize about relatively minor events. Kids may feel overwhelmed by a poor test score or a sarcastic remark from a peer. Don’t discount their feelings, but help them develop a broader perspective. In the big book of life, these events don’t justify a footnote.

Finally, help your children develop an intense sense of gratitude for what they have, rather than lament what they don’t.

Next Week: Why following the “Golden Rule” is psychologically dangerous.

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