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The Way You Love Your Child is Key to Their Mental Health

The way you love your child is the most significant factor in determining his or her mental health. One-third of children between 3-17 years of age in America have at least one mental health problem. So it may be present in your family right now.

It’s not whether you love your child or not. Of course you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this article.

It’s not how much you love your child because no words could express it – it is infinite and unbound.

But what is crucial is how you show that love – whether it creates the foundation for strong but flexible bonds that ensure your child’s resiliency to mental health problems or not -not to mention the guilt, shame and sense of worthlessness that these young people have to live with in a competitive world, both on and offline.

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The way you love your child predicts whether mistakes are learning opportunities or catastrophes

The way you love your child determines whether they become overly dependent, entitled, or cope with rejection without withdrawing altogether. The way you love your child is the crucial element in building a strong sense of self where mistakes are learning opportunities rather than devasting catastrophes that cause acute anxiety and or Obsessive Compulsive Behaviors. If mistakes are seen as failures then perfectionism sets in, which research shows leads to mental ill health and relationship problems.

The way you love your child is a risk factor for mental health problems

A large scale study reported in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 2022, using survey responses of 132,000 US children aged 3-17, found that 21.8 percent have at least one or more common mental health problem such as anxiety, loneliness, depression, poor impulse control, substance abuse, body image distortion and eating disorders.

It’s pretty wide spread too, ranging from 15 to 60%, and increased with the risks of exposure to relationship problems in the family. The higher the risks of relationship issues in the family, combined with any social problem, the higher the risk for mental health problems in children, adolescents and young adults. At least one-third of children had risks both socially and within family relationships.

The way you love your child reflects on how well you regulate your emotions

June, a 40-year old mother of two adored her kids. She was particularly close with her 17-year-old daughter Pia who was applying to college to learn hydroponic agriculture. Marty, Pia’s 41-year-old father was also close with her, but was more involved in his 12-year-old son Duane through their joint love of soccer. Marty and June had Pia at a time when they were beginning their adult lives outside of college, both having had difficult relationships with their families. Pia became their everything. She gave them purpose and a reason to separate themselves from the expectations and demands of their own parents.

June’s love for Pia was all-consuming, as if the child was an extension of her. She had always been that way with own mother, and the only times June could be herself was when she fought with her mother and they went to their separate corners before reuniting again. Fight and mesh, fight and mesh that was their pattern – exhausting but also exhilerating! The only way out was to get pregnant and start her own family.

For Marty Pia became the salvation for all his youthful mistakes. He was going to make sure she turned out so well that it would wash away his juvenile record for petty theft, for which he did community service, but lived with the stain of shame that he hoped Pia’s good life would remove. In Marty’s mind the way you love your child was set up to undo his shame and give him a do over in the process.

June’s way of merging herself with Pia felt great. The two were in synch and could sense and read each other instantly.

It was great and not so great.

Great for Pia and June except when dad was around – he became the third side of a triangle that disrupted their perfect union.

Not so great because Marty wanted to teach Pia to think things through and avoid consequences. But June wanted to protect Pia from the world so that she never faced the harshness, the inevitable hurt and disappointments to come.

couple kissing young son - The Way You Love Your Child is Key to Their Mental Health

The way you love your child to facilitate good mental health is to encourage healthy emotional regulation

The study reported in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 2022 indicated that the odds of a child who had good emotional regulation together with a healthy parent-child bond was 5.73 times greater for good mental health outcomes.

In Pia’s case she had neither.

Marty didn’t regulate his emotions in a healthy way. He just kept in all in. June leaked her emotions and Pia had to mop it up.

Marty was too controlled and June lacked boundaries.

The relationship between Pia and June was enmeshed and didn’t allow for Pia to establish a sense of self (creating enormous resentment and anger).

The relationship between Pia and Marty was one of teacher and student rather than father and daughter.

Too close with mother and daughter and too distant with father and daughter.

couple disagreeing over tantruming son - The Way You Love Your Child is Key to Their Mental Health

The way you love your child may send induce stress and poor mental health outcomes

It is no wonder that as Pia entered a huge milestone in leaving home for college, she couldn’t handle the stress. She was dealing with guilt at leaving June and feared not living up to Marty’s expectations. The stress was so great that she started binge drinking with her fraternity mates, and allowed herself to be induced into group sex, while others recorded it and posted it on social media. Pia was so angry about the postings that she lost it, sending menacing threats and stalking the person who posted Pia’s shameful orgy. College authorities reported her stalking behavior to the police. At first her shame and guilt about letting down her parents and brother covered her rage.
It wasn’t until her parents realized that Pia had been charged with assault during a rageful altercation with the person who posted the video, that they became aware of how serious the situation was.

As June and Marty tried to get their head around their lovely compliant Pia behaving in this uncontrolled way, they sought out therapy for the family and Pia. The mental health of this young person had been compromised. She acted out, used substances and engaged in anti-social behavior. This is a common precursor of future chronic impulse control problems, OCD and or Eating Disorders – the need to lose control and feel free and then the need to rein it all in.

During the therapy sessions Pia had a safe space to have her feelings of guilt, shame and rage because she felt so uneasy about living her own life away from the family. She spoke of being overwhelmed with June’s several texts a day – which meant Pia couldn’t concentrate on her studies – she had to take care of mom. Marty talked about being too hard on Pia.

June had individual therapy to help establish better personal boundaries – giving Pia a chance to do so herself without feeling like a traitor or abandoner. The way you love your child to promote good mental health is to foster emotional regulation, that builds resiliency.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2022

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