Building Up The Brain

Children as young as six years old are seeking help for depression, relationships issues, bullying and family problems, so adopting a parenting style that is mindful of a child’s developing brain is crucial.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Children as young as six years old are seeking help for depression, relationships issues, bullying and family problems, so adopting a parenting style that is mindful of a child’s developing brain is crucial.

Silence at the dinner table, the slamming of bedroom doors, arguments, tantrums and tears – no one is denying that parenting a child or teen is hard, but for the most part, mood swings and the occasional outburst should be exactly that; occasional. In recent years, however, child and adolescent mental health statistics have become increasingly alarming.

Anxiety in young people is now commonplace, and according to the Institute of Mental Health in Singapore, stress-related, anxiety and depressive disorders are common conditions seen at its Child Guidance Clinics that treat children aged six to 18. The clinics saw an average of about 2,400 new cases every year from 2012 to 2017.

National Institute of Education’s associate professor Jason Tan said the types and levels of pressure faced by the youth today have increased. Citing how the rise of social media has created self-image issues, professor Tan said: “Now students are not just competing with their classmates or peers, they are exposed to youth around the world.” This may lead them to have unrealistic expectations.”

He added that online bullying is also a major problem. “Unfortunately, there are not enough safeguards in place. Mental health issues are silent, invisible killers,” says the professor. “[Those who are] unable to understand them or spot the signs may simply tell these youth to snap out of it or stop being lazy. [Mental health issues are] difficult to handle – both for the affected individuals, and their teachers, friends and parents, too.”

Empathetic Parenting 

Parenting is hard enough without throwing mental health issues into the mix. Dr Joanna North address the complex task of being a parent today, and provides a guide to help your child grow into a strong and resilient person in her book, Mind Kind: Your Child’s Mental Health. In it, she includes tips on supporting a child who is going through more serious mental health struggles.

“Regardless of age, every single person on the planet has mental health [issues] – and inner life that is fundamental to their wellbeing – and being younger, unfortunately, doesn’t mean you are exempt from issues like depression and anxiety,” Joanna explains.

“It’s happening, it’s going on and it’s real. It’s as real as a broken leg or a bruise or a scratch, it’s just that we can’t see it. I think if we ignore it, we’re dismissing our children being alive.”

Joanna admits that getting it right all the time just isn’t possible when it comes to parenting, and when it comes to children who are always evolving and can be unpredictable, concrete rules or techniques aren’t particularly helpful either. What she suggests is a general philosophy of parenting that treats the child’s mind with compassion.

This approach is not about constant praise, overprotection, or sugar-coating, which can lead to narcissism and a lack of resilience, but simply about patience, thoughtfulness and empathy. Even if you are teaching a child a life lesson or helping them to learn from a mistake, the important part is the delivery.

“The way we treat children has an enormous impact on their brain, and kindness is known to be one of the emotional states that has a very profound therapeutic input. It doesn’t matter what the task is; if we do it with thoughtfulness towards their developing brain, we are likely to be able to appeal to them much more quickly,” says Joanna.

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Talk About It 

As a parent, how do you distinguish between what is just a mild mood swing, and what is a serious red flag? Emotions like anger and sadness are not a reason to panic – they are fantastic tools for young people to communicate – the red flag is when a mood becomes prolonged.

Aside from extended low moods or panic attacks, other strong indicators include not sleeping, not eating properly, withdrawal from friendships, or withdrawing from the world altogether. In rare cases, professional help is required immediately, but in general, a conversation between the parent and child is the best place to start.

“We can’t all just jump in and see professionals as soon as we feel anxious,” Joanna points out. “Some anxiety is natural and people are forgetting that. Our children have to learn to live with it and manage it too, that’s really important.”

By the same token, if you are experiencing stress or mental health issues of your own, being open about what you’re going through and how you are managing it is a great way to educate and role-model resilience, or healthy coping mechanisms.

To get the ball rolling, start with small, meaningless chit-chat. Laying this foundation, you’ll be much more likely to create bigger conversations. If you sense something is wrong, telling your child that you’re going to take a guess at what’s wrong is a great place to start.

For children that aren’t so chatty, there are plenty of other ways to connect and spark dialogues. Go for a walk, get some ice cream, see a movie or play a game. The intention isn’t to know every detail of their inner world; it’s merely about being alongside them.

Tackling Body Image 

Historically, there’s always been pressure to look a certain way, but with easy access to social media and the Internet, this pressure now starts at a much younger age, leaving teens at a higher risk or developing mental health issues, low self-esteem, unhealthy body image and eating disorders. It’s a topic parents need to be open about.

“All of these impossible images are harmful to us. We just need to be comfortable and happy with our bodies. That’s the most important thing,” Joanna says. Before trying to talk to your children about body image, she recommends reflecting on your own judgments and attitudes about weight and food, as that’s what your children will pick up first. 

Although every household operates differently around meals, the important thing is to strike a balance between rules and enjoyment. Yes, the basic function of food is nourishment, but it also has strong emotional, social and pleasure components. “You do need some control and management, but if you’ve lost all the joy of food, that’s when you need to look at it.” 

Even if you can demonstrate positive body image, a healthy relationship with food and expose your children to body diversity, schools, social circles and the media will always play a huge role in shaping their body image attitudes – the responsibility doesn’t weigh entirely on your shoulders as a parent.

Ease Up On Yourself 

Whatever might be going on for your child, a message Joanne emphasises is to try not to get caught up in self-blame. There are so many other influences on a child’s inner world that are completely out of your control. 

A key message in her book is to have compassion and acceptance for yourself, as children will mirror your behaviour. For a child to grow up and go through life with an unshakeable sense of acceptance is a gift that no amount of money can buy. 

For those for whom working long hours or multiple jobs is necessary to financially support a family, giving your children your full attention in those precious moments you do share, goes a long way, as does making sure that the home is a happy one. 

Joanna’s final word is, as much as you can, enjoy the ride. “This is such a short journey and it will be over before you know it. Relish every moment.” 


Singapore mothers share how they keep their children’s mental health on the right track:

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“My husband and I both agree to always try to communicate to our son first. He’s almost three years old, so while he can let me know what he wants most of the time, there are times when he gets frustrated because he can’t get his needs or wants across. During these moments, I let him cry it out and compose himself first. Once he’s calmed down, I get him to slowly explain what he wants. So far, this communication method has always worked with him and it helps him to understand that if there’s anything wrong, he can let us know.”  

– Zahra Hamzah, 31, sales manager

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“I try to establish healthy habits at home because I know things like a balanced diet, a good night’s sleep, and plenty of fun, physical exercise is essential to my daughter’s state of mind. After all, a healthy body will help keep her mind in good shape, too. She’s only five but it’s never too early to start teaching children about self-care and stress relief. I encourage her to keep a diary that she writes and draws in. This way when she gets anxious or has something weighing on her mind; she has an outlet for it because she doesn’t always want to tell me what’s wrong.”

– Lisa Twang, 38, content contributor.

Need Help? 

The information included here is not a substitute for medical intervention. Should your child exhibit suicidal thoughts or tendencies, seek professional help immediately:

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

Institute of Mental Health’s mobile crisis service: 6389-2222

Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800

Shan You Counselling Centre (English and Mandarin): 6741-9293

Tinkle Friend (for primary school-aged children): 1800-274-4788