We all want the best for our children. But, that can be difficult with circumstances like family stress, living in an unhealthy community, or dealing with anxiety during a global pandemic. The good news is that there are simple, yet effective, ways that you can help strengthen your children’s mental health. While it won’t magically make these problems disappear, it will help your children remain emotionally stable and develop resilience so that they’re better prepared to cope with life’s challenges.
1. Be a role model.
Children, especially younger ones, will mimic what they see you dong. As such, the first thing that you can do when enhancing your children’s mental health is setting a good example. Carrie Sherier, an Extension Educator with Michigan State University Extension's Children and Youth Institute, suggests that you can do this by:
Choosing your words and actions wisely.
Thinking of your home like it’s their first classroom by asking what you would like them to learn.
Including your child in daily activities.
Limiting their exposure to television and social media.
Additionally, work on breaking bad habits like smoking, consuming too much alcohol, swearing, and lying. You should also show them ways to handle stress and anxiety, such as through breathing exercises, meditating, or creative outlets like writing or drawing.
2. Schedule one-on-ones with your children.
“Countless studies indicate one of the key factors that builds resilience in young people is a sense of being connected to adults,” says Collett Smart, a registered psychologist, educator, and author of They’ll Be Okay. This type of parenting includes one-on-one time and forms part of an ‘authoritative parenting’
“Research tells us that this style of parenting develops a warm, involved and communicative parent-child relationship,” adds Collett.
“An authoritative parent is assertive and has clear standards of behavior for their children, while simultaneously trying to be supportive and understanding of their children’s point of view.
“Spending time with and meeting them where they are is crucial to our children’s healthy development. Our children learn values from the adults they spend the most time within both the day-to-day joys and struggles.”
How can you give each child this much-needed one-on-one time? Well, you can try to implement the following:
Make them a part of your routine, like bringing them with you when running errands.
Understand, develop, and engage in their passions. For example, if they are creative, then sit down and draw with them or plan to take them a pottery class during the weekend. If they want to learn about dolphins then read educational books them during their bedtime routine.
Schedule one-on-one ‘special nights’ once per week. If you have several children, rotate these days with them.
3. Keep structure in-tact.
“Experts agree that establishing a daily structure is the best way to keep family life as healthy as possible right now,” writes Toni Birdsong, a Family Safety Evangelist for McAfee. “Scheduling set times for learning, chores, exercise, mealtimes, screen time, and connecting with peers in online hangouts, is essential.”
“Establishing structure may be easier with software that also helps limit screen time, monitor activity, and filter apps and websites,” adds Birdsong.
Also, research has found that routines, such as mealtime, can help with your child’s brain development.
4. Focus on physical health.
There is a strong correlation between physical and mental health. As such, you and your children should make this a priority. You can still by getting around eight hours of sleep a night and sticking to the same wake and sleep schedule every day -- even on weekends.
Additionally, you should encourage physical activity by going for walks or bike rides after dinner. You could also play soccer in the backyard or energy-bursting indoor games, such as the Tape Shape Game. At the minimum, you should have them engage in physical activity for at least 30-minutes a day.
And, make sure that they drink an adequate amount of water and consume nutritious whole foods that contain protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
5. Increase emotional vocabulary.
“An emotional vocabulary is the collection of words your child uses to express their feelings and reactions to events,” explains Amanda Morin for ThoughtCo. “Even before they learned to talk, your child was beginning to build an emotional vocabulary.” Why is this important? “Children need a larger pool of words to draw on to be able to express all their emotions as well as to be able to read the cues that indicate other people’s feelings.”
“Being able to sense and understand the emotions of others is a big part of a child’s social development and social success,” says Morin. “If your child can read the emotional cues to get a sense of how other children are responding to their attempts to connect with them, they are more able to respond appropriately. This is the foundation on which the ability to create and maintain friendships is built upon.”
Thankfully, you can help them develop emotional literacy by:
Making a big list of feelings.
Adding feeling noises to your Big List of Feelings.
Playing emotional charades.
Changing up the "Happy and You Know It Song”
Making a Feeling Collage.
Keeping a feelings journal.
Role-playing and reviewing.
6. Encourage autonomy.
While children do need structure and routine, you should also be a little more flexible. For example, you could let them pick out their own clothes to wear or how they want to spend their downtime. Doing so makes them feel valued and more confident.
7. Praise, don’t reprimand.
When children receive praise for their good deeds, achievements, effort, and healthy habits, they’ll be motivated to keep repeating these actions. This also encourages self-esteem and self-worth.
If you must reprimand your children, do not compare them to their siblings. Additionally, don’t discipline without labeling. That means using words like “bad” since this doesn’t encourage acceptable behavior. Instead, explain to them why their behavior or actions weren’t appropriate.
8. Build a community.
Mental health can be influenced by your environment. Just like about how much you dread work if it’s a toxic and unhealthy workplace? Because of this, build a healthy and positive community for your children by encouraging friendships or getting involved in extracurricular activities.
Another way to achieve this is by creating family traditions. It could be volunteering once a month, going on a family vacation every July, or having a family game night on Fridays. Whatever you choose, family traditions create bonds, structure, and a shared identity.
9. Consult a healthcare consultant.
Finally, if your child is acting abnormally or displaying signs like isolation, regression, a change in eating or sleeping habits, or engaging in destructive behavior, then it’s time to make an appointment with a mental health professional who specializes in working with children and adolescents.