How To Improve Child Mental Health: The Lifestyle Connection

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

Poor lifestyle in areas such as sleep, eating and exercise contributes to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

In this article I’ll discuss why lifestyle is the cornerstone of positive child mental health.

Using a case example you will learn how to improve child mental health significantly by taking a step-by-step lifestyle-based approach.

Children With Mental Health Issues

Children’s mental health is affected by so many life circumstances and experiences.

This includes where they live, where they go to school, socioeconomic status, and whether they have any underlying needs or neurodevelopmental differences.

The World Health Organization reports that:

Worldwide, 10% of children and adolescents experience mental disorders, but the majority of them do not seek help or receive care.

In some countries including the UK and the united states, the statistics are higher. For example, in the USA, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention):

“…approximately one in five children and adolescents experience a mental disorder each year; approximately two in five children and adolescents will meet criteria for a mental disorder by age 18 years, and one half of mental disorders have an onset before age 14 years.”

Though there are some things you cannot change about your child’s circumstances, lifestyle is an area you can change and it can have a profound positive effect on both overall health and good mental health.

Kids’ Mental Health: What Affects It?

Children and young people have to constantly adjust to their stages of development from early childhood to the time they become young adults. There are frequent physical changes, rapid periods of brain development and phases of social and emotional development.

They also have to cope with high societal expectations in terms of school performance.

On top of this, a child’s mental health can be affected by traumatic events such as parental separation, bereavement of family members, physical health problems, parental illness or mental health problems, poverty or financial difficulties.

Children with neurodevelopmental differences such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism (also known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD) are at higher risk of developing anxiety disorders and other mental health issues.

This is because the world is “set up” for neurotypical people, and can be more stressful for those who are neurodivergent.

Whether or not your child faces some of these risk factors for mental health challenges, working towards a balanced lifestyle plays an important role in keeping them healthy and minimising emotional distress.

child mental health and family support: a happy family of three

Lifestyle and Mental Health

A balanced lifestyle is not the only essential factor in preventing mental health problems, but it is the first place you should start.

Small positive changes in any area of lifestyle can have a major positive knock-on effect.

In our current post-pandemic, high cost-of-living, high stress culture, it is even more important to ensure your child has a balanced lifestyle through conscious parenting.

It’s vital that you, too, are setting a good example by balancing your lifestyle and working to keep your mind healthy.

However, a balanced lifestyle is important at any time.

How To Improve Child Mental Health

Take a moment to reflect. Is your child mentally healthy at the moment?

If the answer is no, then you must work on the foundation, and a healthier mind will follow.

The foundation is a healthy lifestyle.

The necessary components of a healthy lifestyle include: Sleep, eating well and regularly, exercise, social contact, and a safe home to recuperate from life’s demands (rest and relaxation).

family having fun together at home - family time for child mental health

Below I will help you assess your child’s lifestyle and where to focus on making changes in a realistic and positive way.

To do this, I’m going to use a case study, Daniel.

Daniel is not a real child.

He is an amalgamation of many children I have met over the years through my work at Everlief and in the NHS. (For confidentiality reasons I would never write about a real child.)

Lifestyle and Mental Health: Case Study – Daniel

Daniel is twelve. His parents, Gemma and David, have noticed a decline in his mental health over the last six months.

Daniel has become withdrawn. He has withdrawn from most social activities with his friends, whether online or face to face.

He is not really interested in spending time downstairs with his family.

He prefers to be in his bedroom.

little boy happy, reflective: child mental health and lifestyle

Daniel has become anxious about going out. If Gemma and David try to persuade him to go for a walk, he gets angry.

Some days, Daniel can’t go to school because he feels panicky.

This has begun to affect his school grades.

Daniel does not do any exercise at the moment.

Daniel regularly has his light on late at night when David checks in on him. His parents also hear him moving around in the middle of the night.

Daniel’s appetite is okay. He picks at meals but tends to eat comfort foods and snacks in between meals.

There is a lot going on for Daniel.

He doesn’t know why he has withdrawn from social situations and gets anxious and angry. He knows everything feels scary at the moment.

He has lost confidence in his social skills because he hasn’t had much social contact lately.

His personal life feels challenging (school, keeping up academically).

Daniel is also a deep thinker. He worries a lot about what is going on in the world since the pandemic began, along with war and climate change.

How to Improve Child Mental Health: Assessing Daniel’s Lifestyle Balance

Let’s take a look at Daniel’s lifestyle and work out which areas are contributing to his poor mental health.

As you have read above, there are other factors which are contributing to Daniel’s distress, but balancing his lifestyle will go a long way in supporting Daniel’s state of mind.

Child Mental Health

Gemma and David made a rough estimate of each area of lifestyle.

100% represents the best possible level of sleep, exercise, and so on.

I find that creating a visual representation of lifestyle can be so helpful to identify where a child needs help.

Lifestyle Connection: Daniel’s Lifestyle Analysis

Daniel is getting enough rest and relaxation. He feels safe at home. His eating is fine, though his parents would prefer him to eat his healthy meals and less comfort food in between meals.

Daniel needs help in the other three areas: sleep, exercise and social contact.

As you can see from the chart, the biggest concern is lack of exercise.

Every child needs daily exercise for stress release (for example, burning off stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline) and to release mood-balancing chemicals such as serotonin. Outdoor exercise is particularly important.

Children’s Mental Health: Taking Action

Daniel’s parents could see they needed to take action.

They decided to start with exercise.

They wanted to find a way to get Daniel outside, exercising, without the stress and anger. They showed Daniel the chart and explained why each area is important for wellbeing.

Gemma then had a brain wave. The family’s next-door neighbour recently got a puppy and mentioned that they are struggling to keep up with daily walks.

Gemma asked if they could walk the puppy, knowing that Daniel loves dogs.

The neighbours agreed and so did Daniel (reluctantly).

child mental health lifestyle and walking

The family began walking the puppy in the local park, starting with only 15 minutes per day and gradually increasing this to one hour.

Gemma and David could see an immediate improvement in Daniel’s mood each day after walking and playing with the puppy. It also created a small amount of social contact; collecting the puppy from the neighbours’ doorstep and saying hello to familiar people in the park.

Family relationships also improved.

Gemma and David knew that next time they drew the chart, the exercise and social contact bars would have increased. They could see this was slowly having an effect on Daniel’s wellbeing.

How to Improve Child Mental Health: Keep Taking Small Steps

Now that Daniel was getting outside more and exercising, Gemma and David could see that he was sleeping a little bit better.

However, they knew it still wasn’t great.

Having taken some sleep advice, they decided they would help Daniel de-clutter his bedroom to create a more “Zen” space where his mind could wind down.

Next, they planned to help Daniel calm each of his senses one hour before bed.

Daniel made a planner which included having a bubble bath and listening to calming music.

Within two weeks Daniel was sleeping more soundly. Gemma and Daniel could see this was having a positive impact on his mood.

He became less withdrawn, and spent more time downstairs with them in the evenings. He remembered the importance of family time for his mood.

Daniel also began to have more academic success as he was less exhausted.

Daniel’s sleep was still not perfect but as Gemma, David and Daniel could see clear improvements, this spurred them on to look at other small changes they could make, to continue the improvements.

Child Mental Health They Are The Future

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Child Mental Health

I hope you have been inspired by Daniel’s story. He represents many hundreds of children with similar difficulties with whom I have worked in the last twenty years.

If you feel your child’s lifestyle is not balanced, start by creating a visual chart like Daniel’s.

Pick the area with the lowest score and plan one or two changes. Given time, you will start to see higher scores.

Make sure you set realistic goals. Don’t try to do everything at once.

Re-visit your chart regularly and keep track of the changes in score.

Good luck!


How to Improve Child Mental Health: Frequently Asked Questions

When Should I Worry About My Child’s Mental Health?

There are several signs that you may need to address your child’s mental health. This may include seeking professional help. Key signs are:

  • Your child’s difficulties (such as anxiety or low mood) are affecting daily life. For example, they no longer feel able to go to places that they could go to six months ago.
  • Your child’s mental health is causing problems which significantly impact other family members such as anger outbursts, physical aggression.
  • You have noticed a sudden change in your child’s mental health. This could indicate a serious problem.

Early intervention is associated with a more positive outcome, so seek support as early as you can if you notice any of the signs above.

How Can I Support a Child With Mental Health Issues?

If your child’s mental health difficulties are affecting everyday life for them or your family, speak to your family doctor or your child’s school about getting a referral to your local mental health providers.

In the UK, this may be the CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health) service.

You may have to wait for support.

While you wait, there are two things you can do.

The first is to focus on supporting your child to make healthy lifestyle changes. The second is to explore online mental health resources.

There are many mental health resources for parents of both young children and teenagers.

Here are some great resources for you:

  1. The Child Mind Institute offers written information and support in a huge range of child mental health topics. Aimed at parents of  children of all ages.
  2. My website, They Are The Future, contains articles on all areas of child mental health and parenting in children aged 6-16.
  3. For more interactive support, Everlief Parent Club is run by me and my team at Everlief Child Psychology. We offer live workshops, Q&A sessions and a wealth of information inside a private and interactive online members’ portal. Everlief Parent Club is only available to UK parents at the moment.

How to Improve Child Mental Health: Related Articles

Adult And Child Mental Health: Supporting Yourself And Your Child

Children’s Sleep Tracker Template {Free Printable}

5 Emotional Regulation Activities For Children

When Your Child Won’t Or Can’t Talk About Their Feelings

Evening Routines For Positive Teen Mental Health

16 Best Family Wellbeing Activities for Teens

Teens and Social Media: 6 Essential Parent Tips

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.

parent tips for positive mental health facebook group