Mental Health Awareness Week: How To Ensure Your Child's Most Important Relationship Is 'Good Enough'

A good parent-child relationship is not about perfection.

A child's relationship with their parent or guardian has a major impact on their mental health, but thankfully mums and dads don't need to be "perfect" - a "good enough" bond is all that's needed.

Strong relationships are the focus of 2016's Mental Health Awareness Week and this is of particular importance for parents, because according to the Mental Health Foundation:

"The attachment that a child has with its parent or guardian is a central predictor for mental health and wellbeing, as well as relationship satisfaction, during adulthood.

"During childhood and adolescence, we learn how to engage with others from our parents, families and guardians and this early socialisation shapes how we understand and model relationship-forming behaviour throughout life."

Maskot via Getty Images

What constitutes a "strong relationship"?

"The key to looking after your child's mental health is nurturing the type of relationship that means when they are in trouble, upset or stressed they will automatically think about having a chat with you," explained Emma Saddleton, Young Minds parents helpline manager.

"Children need to have a connection with someone who represents 'safety'. It doesn't matter if that person is mum, dad, a carer or a grandparent, but we do know there needs to be a meaningful connection with one adult as a minimum."

However, if all of this is just making you think back to the last time you raised your voice or got to bedtime without asking your child about their day, then fear not - a good relationship is not about perfection.

"There is no such thing as perfect parenting, your relationship with your children only needs to be ‘good enough’, to make a difference to their mental health," said Dr Bernadka Dubicka, vice-chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

BananaStock via Getty Images

How can you build a strong relationship with your children?

Be Available

"Having time for relationships with your children is key," explained Jonathan Wood, Place2Be's national manager for Wales and Scotland.

"Everybody is so busy, but what children need more than anything else, is contact and connection with their parents or primary caregivers.

"So any time people can spend with their children, playing with them and hanging out with them, that's worth its weight in gold."

But Understand It's OK To Not Always Be Available

"It’s important to recognise that as children get older and life gets messier there are always going to be distractions," said Saddleton.

"Don't place unobtainable expectations on yourself. It may be unrealistic to dedicate half an hour to sitting down alone with each child every evening, but that doesn't mean you can't find time to listen to your kids.

"It might be that when you're doing the school run you have 10 minutes alone with your daughter. That can become a treasured time when you have a conversation about all the things that she's going to do that day.

"Having a chaotic lifestyle and being constantly interrupted won't create an insecure attachment for your kids, because actually interactions are ruptured all the time, so the hallmark of a really sensitive caregiver is somebody who can manage and repair those ruptures."

Be Responsive

"Repairing those ruptures" involves being sensitive to your child's signals: knowing what is normal for your child and being able to spot changes in their behaviour, which may signify that they need some alone time with you.

"For some 14-year-olds spending a lot of time away from their family, playing Xbox or on Facebook is totally normal," said Saddleton. "But if your teen has always been very talkative at home and then they withdraw into themselves, that's a marked shift in behaviour and it is worth checking in with them to see if everything is OK."

Being responsive also involves actively listening to your children.

"If what's bothering your child is picked up and heard, then the child will continue to trust that they can go to their parent for help," explained Wood.

"But if you’re dismissive then the child will give up telling you stuff. You need to provide the sort of relationship where your child actually feels listened to feels taken seriously."

Communication Is About More Than Words

"Eye contact is very powerful," advised Saddleton. "Even for newborn babies, eye contact with a primary care giver provides comfort and creates a bond."

Also, while some children will be happy talking about themselves, others may find it easier to express themselves in other ways.

"Get to know your child on an individual level," advised Dr Joanna Silver, specialist at Nightingale Hospital.

"If they like to draw then ask them to draw what they are feeling, or if they prefer to play then do some role play to bond with them."

Be Inquisitive

"Asking a child how their day has been is a simple gesture, but a very powerful one, in terms of letting them know they will have a regular outlet," said Saddleton.

"When you notice changes in their behaviour ask them about it without being punitive. Don't say: 'What's wrong with you?' Instead think about what's going on in their life at the moment, - is there anything that could be unsettling them, such as friendship problems or exams, - and ask about that."

Be Involved

Professor Peter Fonagy, chief executive of the Anna Freud Centre, explained that building a strong relationship involves taking an active interest in your child's hobbies and preferences.

"Join them in their daily journey through life," he advised. "Just as most of us appreciate being joined with our experiences, children appreciate you being interested in what they have done, what they feel proud of and what they feel worried about."

Be Strict When Necessary

Don't feel guilty if you've had to tell your child off or lay down some strict rules that have upset them - building a strong relationship is about more than just being the nice guy.

"Being a parent is partly about setting boundaries as this enables children to develop resilience and really strong mental health," explained Saddleton. "Children thrive with routine and consistency.

"As a parent if you find yourself constantly in a cycle of telling off, you can feel as though you’re not doing a good job. But this is exactly what a secure attachment looks like. It's about finding a balance between being a friend and a parent with authority."

Silver added that it's important to help children gain an understanding of why you are imposing rules.

"Explaining that rules exist not just to be punitive, but for their own safety or development, will give children a sense that you're working with them, not against them," she said.

But Don't Always Protect Children From Themselves

Wanting to protect your children from making mistakes is only natural, but it can rob children of the chance to learn how to deal with mistakes.

"Setting boundaries is crucial, but at the same time, it’s important to choose your battles carefully," cautions Dubicka. "Let children learn through their mistakes sometimes.

"Give them some autonomy and don't be overcontrolling. Parenting that is too controlling can lead to increased anxiety and/or unnecessary battles.

"It’s a tough balance, but it’s only got to be good enough."

Be Visibly Fallible

As well as learning from their own mistakes, children can also learn from yours.

"When a parent makes a mistake it's important that they can apologise and say 'I got this wrong', as it teaches children that mistakes aren't insurmountable," explained Silver.

"If children learn that it's ok to make mistakes and it's how you deal with them that matters, then that will make them feel secure that your relationship with them is stable and will set them up to build healthy relationships in the future."

And Breathe

"There is a very vicious cycle that can come to dominate the relationship between parent and child, just like any other relationship," cautions Fonagy.

"Intense feelings particularly anger or resentment in one person is likely to trigger intense emotions in the other, making it very hard for either to treat the other with empathy or sympathy.

"While such episodes are inevitable in any relationship, in the parent child relationship it’s up to the mature adult to step beyond the specific situation and not just react, but also think.

"Pausing to reflect about the wider context of what’s happening in the child’s life, what other things are going on that may be upsetting them, can help stop an escalation of conflict.”

"It’s not difficult to be a good parent, but it is impossible to be a good parent all the time," Fonagy concluded. "What we should strive for is to be as good as we can be as much of the time as possible - in other words being there for the child."

10 Quotes That Perfectly Sum Up The Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness