10 ways to support your child’s mental health
Do you know it’s Mental Health week here in Australia? Or that today, October 10th (10/10) is World Mental Health Day? It’s an international day dedicated to increasing knowledge, education and understanding of mental health issues, and reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. It’s been celebrated since 1992, and each year there is a different theme. This years theme? Young people and mental health in a changing world.
Now if you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I’m super passionate about mental health. Particularly youth mental health. I’ve worked in child and adolescent mental health for over 10 years. I’ve met a lot of young people suffering with mental health problems. Mental illness destroys families. It destroys futures. And it destroys hope. And that makes me sad. Because everyone deserves hope. Especially children.
During my career I have heard so many misconceptions and untruths about mental illness. Some of my “favourites” include: You can tell someone is mentally ill just by looking at them. Mentally ill people are violent. Having a mental illness means you’re crazy. Mental illness is just an excuse to get away with bad behaviour. Mental illness didn’t “exist” in my day. My mental illness is my fault. There’s nothing wrong with you, you just need to “think positively”. And the list, unfortunately, goes on. Is it any wonder people hide their mental illness from others and pretend they’re fine?
Know the early warning signs
I have worked in mental health for a very long time. My very first (paid) job was for a mental health telephone service, providing counselling and support to people with mental health problems. This meant I would do a quick assessment over the phone to determine what their symptoms were, how long they’d been going on, and which service would best suit their needs. I spoke to people of all ages, genders, nationalities, religions, abilities, and professions. People at various stages of illness.
But I always asked them the same kind of questions. Because there are a few very important markers that start to decline when a person’s mental health is deteriorating. You may notice changes to sleep, appetite, mood, concentration, attention, thought patterns, interest and engagement in usual activities, social withdrawal and avoidance or other social difficulties, and a general decline in their day to day functioning and care of themselves. For children, this includes a decline in school functioning, performance or attendance.
Supporting your child’s mental health
Once you know what to look out for, you can be proactive about supporting and protecting your child’s mental health. Children, particularly young children, are not able to manage their own mental health, anymore than they are able to manage their own physical health. You wouldn’t trust a 5 year old to get herself to the GP for a flu vaccination would you? Or leave her in charge of taking her own vitamins. You’d help her. You’d monitor her physical health – look for signs that she’s developing a cold, or a rash. Help her if she has a fever.
Mental health is the same. Children’s brains were designed to function alongside an adults. They cannot operate properly without at least one supportive, caring relationship with a nurturing adult. It doesn’t matter who that adult is. It could be a parent (and ideally, it is!). But it could also be a teacher, or a coach, or a mentor, or a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle, or a neighbour. That’s why mental health is everyone’s business. Because you may be the one to notice the signs. You may be the one they open up to. You might need to be the one who provides support. And you’ll need to be prepared.
So, here are 10 things you can do today to support the mental health of your child.
1. Encourage regular exercise
Staying active has a number of health benefits. It helps regulate mood, manage stress and anxiety, improves sleep and increases self esteem. It is unbelievably protective when it comes to mental health. Encourage your child to find an activity they enjoy. It doesn’t have to be organised sports if that’s not their thing. It could be throwing a frisbee in the back yard, walking the dog, playing at the park, riding their bike, or going for a swim. Whatever it is, help them to incorporate physical activity into their regular routine. Make it “normal” by doing the same.
2. Encourage healthy eating
There is a strong relationship between what we eat and how we feel. You would know yourself, that when you are eating a diet high in sugar and salt you can feel tired and sluggish. Your brain becomes foggy and your mood can drop. You become irritable, snappy, impatient. Ensure your children have a range of healthy, fresh food available to them, and encourage them to make healthy choices when they can. Model healthy eating by making the best choices you can, too.
3. Make sure they get enough sleep
Lack of sleep is stressful for the human brain. It needs rest in order to grow and learn. Lack of sleep can cause irritability, low mood, poor concentration and an increase in anxiety. Ensure your child gets an appropriate amount of sleep for their age. A regular bedtime routine will help. As will switching off all technology one hour before bedtime, and removing distractions like TV from the bedroom. If your child is really having trouble sleeping, try ensuring they use bed only for sleep. This will ensure their brain associates their bed with sleep, rather than with reading, or video games, or talking on the phone. Sleep truly is one of the most important factors that can contribute to mental health. It is often the first thing we address during therapy with a young person.
4. Encourage and nurture positive relationships
Feeling connected to others is vital for healthy minds. Humans need social connection to thrive and grow. Help your child maintain friendships that are healthy and make them feel positive and included. Provide plenty of opportunities for them to engage with children their own age, via extra curricular activities and outings. Provide opportunities for them to nurture friendships with school friends. Encourage them to spend time with other supportive adults, like grandparents and other family members. Model what a healthy relationship looks like by maintaining your own relationships with friends and family members.
5. Validate their feelings
It is important to talk to your child about feelings frequently. Help them to understand that all feelings are ok. That feelings are safe to express and do not need to be hidden. Provide them with the language to express how they are feeling, and the skills to manage those feelings. Model this for them so they can learn. When we are open and honest about how we feel, children are more likely to come to us with their feelings. To let us in, to feel safe to talk and to seek help from us. Bottling feelings up can lead to outbursts, anxiety, and overwhelm. This magnet set is a great way to start educating your child about feelings.
6. Practice mindfulness
Research has shown the benefits of mindfulness are many and varied. Better sleep, improved concentration and focus, increased resilience, improved self esteem, and lower rates of anxiety and depression. In other words, mindfulness is fantastic for mental health. If you’re unsure what mindfulness is and how to practice it with your child, check out this post for more information, or download my Mindfulness Activity Book for kids here.
7. Practice gratitude
Gratitude has also been found to have many benefits when it comes to mental as well as physical health. They include improved self esteem, improved mood, increased energy, deeper, more long lasting and fulfilling relationships, and a more positive outlook on life in general. All fantastic news for mental health. You might like to try using a daily gratitude journal with your child. Or try this exercise: each night at dinner time, everyone takes a turn of sharing one thing they are grateful for today. It’s a simple, quick practice that can really help your child develop resilience and protect their mental health.
8. Help them reframe negative thinking
When our mental health is declining, we often experience a change in the way that we think. Our thought patterns can become altered by our moods and vice versa. When we are feeling down for example, our brains will notice and think more about, all the negative things happening around us. It will ignore any positive experiences. This can cause our mood to worsen further. When children get stuck in this type of thinking pattern, they need help to shift their mindset.
We can teach our children to recognise errors in the way they are thinking by asking them questions like, “What evidence do you have that your belief is true? What would you tell a friend who was thinking like that? Has that worry ever come true before?” Help them to test and compare their thoughts with reality. This is an important skill to learn and one that can prevent them from falling down a rabbit hole of negative thinking and worsening mood.
9. Take time to connect as a family
As I said earlier, the human brain requires connection to thrive. Warm and loving interactions with people we care for helps the brain to learn and grow. Make connection with your child a priority. Eat meals together when you can. Make time for play. Go on dates together. Snuggle up on the couch and watch a movie. Spend time outdoors together. Whatever it is you and your child enjoy doing together? Do more of that. And then more again. Fill up his love tank. For more tips on building emotionally healthy families, see this blog post.
10. Love them unconditionally
I know you already do this, but I’m going to say it anyway, ok?! Accept them as they are. Unique, special and perfectly them. Warts and all. Love them no matter what. Make sure they know you love them no matter what. And make sure they feel it. Right down to their bones.
11. Be their advocate
Yes, I know I said I had 10 tips. Consider this one a bonus ok?! Because ultimately, you are the expert in your child. You are in the best position to recognise changes in your child’s emotions, behaviours and thinking. So be their voice. Speak up, and speak out for them. Be informed and educate yourself. Be on the lookout for early signs and symptoms. Know your family history. And watch for changes. If you’re unsure, or you have questions, seek help from a professional. Your GP is a great place to start.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.