With youth anxiety and depression rates soaring our children need our help.  It’s a sweet tradition to give them hearts and cards and trinkets on Valentine’s Day – we all like those gifts!  But let’s also think about giving them something even more important and loving this year. Let’s give them three gifts that will help them to grow up stable, secure, and with the confidence that they can tolerate discomfort, move through challenges, and manage their emotions. Let’s empower our kids to believe that there is always hope, things can get better, and they have the ability to survive struggles and come out on the other side, and these three gifts will help them see that this Valentine’s Day, they are not alone.

Gift 1:  Understand that emotional health needs to be a priority.

We get them to school, make sure they do homework, and reward them for good grades. Of course academics are important. But guess what? Having straight A’s in all honors classes or being class valedictorian doesn’t get a child anywhere if they’re not emotionally stable.

We teach them to wash their hands, brush their teeth, eat their veggies, and look both ways before crossing the street.  We want them to grow up safe and healthy.  And of course physical health is important!  But emotional health – which gets far less time and attention from us (until it causes a problem!) – gets pushed to the side.  How often do we remind our kids to identify their feelings, center themselves in peace, or take a “breath break?”

When we understand that children need to learn emotional health and coping skills just as much as they need to learn reading, writing, and washing behind their ears – and when we take the time to both identify and teach them these skills, we are giving them a gift that will bolster them throughout their lives, in every area of their lives:   relationships, career, avocations, self-esteem, social interactions, as well as someday in their own parenting.

Gift 2:  Be healthy yourself.

We want our children to live happy, successful lives.  We don’t want them to suffer.  As a psychotherapist, one of the most common questions I get asked by parents is, “How can I help my child?” And my answer is always the same: “The best thing you can do for your child is to be healthy yourself.”

When we’re emotionally healthy ourselves, that’s what we are modeling for our children every day of their lives. Being with us, watching us, and internalizing our behavior is how they learn to become human beings in this world. If we explode at the slightest irritation, they learn to do the same. If we take a breath, calm down, and think before responding to stress, they learn to do the same. In addition, if their mood swings or tantrums trigger the same behaviors in us, we can’t possibly help them. We need to be balanced and stable to promote and teach balance and stability. We need to know and practice healthy coping skills in order to model healthy coping skills.

There is no perfectly emotionally healthy person. So, all of us can benefit from more learning in this area. If you have a hard time staying balanced or coping, work on finding a way to shift this. There’s no lack of help available. Books, workbooks, videos, workshops, counselors, life coaches, therapists and more, are all at our fingertips through Internet resources. Making a commitment to our own emotional health is a gift to our children, as well as ourselves, our families, and our society.

Gift 3:  Start teaching emotional coping skills.

This task is not as intimidating as it sounds! If you’ve taught your kids how to brush their teeth, put laundry in the hamper, make a sandwich, or drive a car, you can do this.  It’s the same process: imparting knowledge step-by-step. 

You might start by identifying clear goals. What do your kids need to learn? How to manage anxiety? How to express feelings in safer ways?  Where to go with their anger?  Pick one goal to start on and then make the announcement:  “We’re going to start working on learning how to calm down.” Then find a realistic time: “Before we leave the table, we’re going to talk about some skills we can use.” And a realistic amount of time: “We’ll talk for 5 – 10 minutes.” And maintain consistency: “Each night.”  Or, “Every Saturday morning.”

Then gather your information.  Start small so you know you can follow through. Find one breathing exercise, one journaling exercise, or a yoga pose. Or whatever speaks to you. Teach one thing at a time and remember they won’t all work, and that’s OK. It’s a process of trial and error, and then trying again. Work together as a family instead of identifying just one person who “needs help.” Have fun with it. Make up a poem about deep breathing, brainstorm safe ways to let out anger, create a “calm down corner” in your home. 

Most importantly, remember that even if you feel like you’re awkwardly stumbling through this, you’re still identifying emotional health as something important enough to pay attention to, talk about, and spend time on.  No matter how well you do it, you’re still familiarizing your kids with this aspect of their life – which can make or break their happiness in so many ways. It doesn’t have to be (and can’t be!) done perfectly to make it one of the most long-lasting and loving gifts you can give them.