Hygiene for the Child's Soul

To ensure good health, we need to take care not only of the physical body, but also of the psyche, i.e. the soul. In October, the world commemorates World Mental Health Day, so we talked to the child clinical psychologist of our clinic, PhDr. Jana Procházková, about mental hygiene for children. What should parents pay attention to in order to instill in their offspring the right principles of taking care of their mental health and promote their resilience to stress?

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The modern world exposes children to stress, which can have a strong impact on their psyche. Can you advise parents on how to reduce stress in children so that it does not harm their mental or physical health?
It is often said that stress is increasing in modern times, but stress has always been there. Man needs stress for life, without it we would probably not be human and would not progress in our development. However, it is essential that stress is limited and does not destroy the individual. Today we know that there are different types of stress. First of all, there is distress, which generally has an unpleasant effect on us, both psychologically and physically. The second type of stress is so-called eustress, which brings excitement and pleasure and motivates us to perform better. A specific type is anticipatory stress, which is self-induced. For example, when someone feels anxious about going to an exam tomorrow or is already afraid of a work meeting the day before... It is important to say that you cannot live without a certain amount of stress. But the point is that it should be eustress that motivates us and moves us forward, rather than distress or unpleasant anticipatory stress. Mental resilience to stress can be strengthened. In this context, we also talk about so-called resilience. One is not born with ready-made resilience and we don't know where it actually comes from. But we do know how it can be destroyed or how it can be strengthened. This area includes various methods of coping with stress, known as coping strategies. For children, the ability to manage stress depends a lot on their supportive social relational network. That is, on people who love them and who will support them and help them in a difficult situation. Adults can build this social network, but a child, especially early in development, is dependent on adults. A lot depends on the family they are born into, the environment they are born into, whether they are wanted and lovingly accepted, or if they are emotionally under-nourished and their needs are not being met sufficiently. Such children handle stress much worse.

Is resilience building, i.e. stress resilience, related to mental hygiene?
Cultivating and maintaining mental hygiene is one of the main factors for building resilience to stress. Mental hygiene is essentially the maintenance and development of mental health. Just as we wash our body, we should also "wash" our soul and take care of it. Children learn this mainly by imitation because it is the easiest way to learn. They imitate what they see in those around them. And not infrequently, they learn bad habits in this way and imitate what they shouldn't do, such as constantly chasing after something or compensating in the form of various bad habits, such as escapism with alcohol, drugs, addiction to shopping or nomophobia, where one becomes anxious about not being with their mobile phone. Children naturally imitate the habits of the people closest to them, which of course has a significant impact on their development and later life. Therefore, parents should pay attention to the role model they set for their children. Children are completely defenseless in this respect and cannot evaluate for themselves whether the behavior they imitate from their loved ones is beneficial or harmful. And the fact is that by adolescence, whatever parents have imbued their child with in this way is often already fixed. What is good is not lost, and what is bad is difficult to change. Sometimes it can't even be changed.

Can you describe specific principles of mental hygiene?
According to today's thinking, a person is not just body and soul. We know they’re interconnected. According to the current interpretation, man is a bio-psycho-social and spiritual unity. Whatever happens in the body will reflect on the soul, whatever happens in society will reflect on the soul, on the body, etc. Everything is connected to everything else. Generally speaking, the basic principles of mental hygiene are mainly related to the somatic and social spheres. An adequate healthy varied diet, sufficient healthy sleep, proper breathing and active exercise, which is very deficient in many children, are essential. I also know from experience that many children do not get enough sleep, watch inappropriate programmes at night or play computer games. Then, of course, they cannot function well the next day, and after a while this can start to take its toll on their physical and mental state.  

What is important for mental hygiene in the social sphere?
Cultivating relationships with people. Because you need to feel that you are loved, that's a key part of mental hygiene because it's one of the basic psychological needs of every human being... Cultivating social relationships is not very popular nowadays, people, including children, often find friends virtually on the net, but these relationships are usually not real. Another misfortune of social networking on the Internet is that everyone presents themselves there in the best light, and the reality is completely different. This gives children and adults a completely false and embellished image, which can have a negative impact on their psyche, as they can begin to feel inferior themselves. In my office, I often ask children what kind of relationships they actually have and whether and what kind of friends they have. When a child says they have 300 friends, I know they have no one to confide in, no one to go to or share their joy with... That they're just virtual relationships. The basics of mental hygiene also include the development of relationships within the family, for example through communal dining, which is also disappearing today, and other shared activities. It can be said that family customs and habits, how family members communicate with each other, how they talk to each other, how they treat each other, all leave traces on the soul. Moreover, I personally stress that as part of mental hygiene, people should learn to cultivate a sense of joy within themselves. It also brings somatic changes, for example, it reduces pain, improves the psychological state and has overall positive effects on the human organism. And related to this, another recommendation for mental hygiene is that every person, including children, should have something in life that gives them pleasure and joy.

So the popular saying that a positive mind is half of health is true in both the physical and mental spheres?
Of course it is. Knowing how to create and maintain a positive frame of mind is a fundamental condition for maintaining and developing mental health. It is helpful for a child to learn to experience joy at an early age, not only in connection with family or friends, but also to be happy with themselves. If they learn to notice what is nice in the world and in their everyday life, it will benefit them mentally and somatically. Moreover, we radiate satisfaction or dissatisfaction from ourselves outwardly, and this attracts or repels other people, so that the success of social application is also related to this.

What should parents be most careful about in not setting a bad example for their offspring? And when should they seek preventive advice from a professional in order to do the right thing?
According to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his Little Prince, we are responsible for what we attach to ourselves. In this spirit, we are responsible for our children. When a mother is dissatisfied, her child is dissatisfied. Conversely, a happy mother has a happy child. This, of course, also applies to the father. I think that when an adult himself feels uncomfortable, for all sorts of reasons, they certainly shouldn't completely hide it from their children. The child should also see that their parents are sometimes sad or tired. But that state must not persist, there must be variety. If a parent feels that he or she is not coping with the situation, it is certainly a good idea to consult a professional about how the situation is being displayed to the child and what can be done about it. This is most true of children whose family is breaking up or facing other more serious problems.

What period is most impactful on children imitating inappropriate habits and building relationships with other people?
I think you need to be on guard all the time when raising children. Of course, there are various so-called critical periods during a child's development. The critical period for relationships, when personality traits are being formed – whether and how they will be able to establish good interpersonal relationships in adulthood, what attitude they will have towards other people or towards life – begins in very early childhood. Pessimists say the crucial period is within their first year, the middle view says by age 3, and optimists by age 5. Thus, even during the first years of life, the upbringing, attitude and example of parents and other people close to the child significantly influence the kind of person he or she will grow up to be.

Some views argue that parents negatively influence their offspring's development not only by poor parenting or by setting the wrong example, but also by excessive demands on the child's activity or desired achievements. How much does this extreme damage a child's soul?
Every extreme is harmful. Be it this one, where a child is overtaxed and unrealistic demands are placed on them just to fulfill their parents' dreams. And the other, when the child, on the contrary, does not have to do anything and has absolute freedom so as not to "abuse" his or her soul. These two extremes are indeed present in our population and are more often seen in child psychologists' offices because of the negative effects these approaches have on the child's psyche. Many parents feel that if the child conforms to their demands, there is no need for any intervention and let everything run its course. But as soon as the child, in their judgment, is not working well, not performing or not meeting their expectations, they intervene. Usually restrictively with bans, orders and the like, which is of course bad motivation that also brings bad results. However, consultation with a specialist does not only benefit these extreme cases, but all parents. Because the development of a child's soul is a complex process that is influenced by many factors and threatened by numerous pitfalls. Therefore, I greatly appreciate parents who come to my office preventively and want to help find the best way to properly direct and support the psychological development of their offspring.


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