Perhaps you have noticed that your child’s wellbeing has dipped or is at a low point? You may feel overwhelmed when it comes to how to support your child’s mental health at home.
I am a clinical psychologist and therapist running a busy child psychology practice for children and teenagers. I want to take you through three areas you can focus on, which can quickly boost their mood and help their overall mental health.
We need the body’s brain and nervous system to be in the best possible shape to cope with the demands of life. That means looking after ourselves as part of our daily routine, and teaching our children to do the same. Lifestyle basics must be in place for a child to have good mental health. All children can benefit from tweaking their lifestyle habits, to change the trajectory of their mental health.
I hope that listing just three quick wins will get you off to a great start and help reduce the overwhelm for you as a parent.
Quick Win Number One: Thirty Minutes of One-on-One Time
Why Does One-on-One Time Support Children’s Mental Health?
Our busy family lives sometimes mean we go through our everyday routines without really connecting with our children.
One-on-one time allows you to develop a deeper connection. By the end of the recommended thirty minutes, even if the conversation was lighthearted, you will have a better understanding of what’s important to them at the moment, and their concerns and worries.
This time will help your child to express their own feelings and worries in healthy ways. They will feel heard and valued, giving them a sense of security within a safe space. It will help you to spot early signs of emotional distress, and what may be underlying your child’s behavior.
The Peaceful Parent Institute points out that 1-1 time has even more benefits for children and young people. It can:
“…result in them generally feeling so much more settled, less stressed, more secure, confident and more cooperative. Creating quality time with each child also tends to greatly minimize sibling rivalry.”
How To Do One-on-One Time
Choose one of the following activities, and simply focus on listening more than you talk.
– Go out for a stroll and then “walk and talk”. If your child isn’t into walking, a great way to hook them in is with a treat such as the promise of a stop at a café at the end for a hot chocolate!
– Sit with them at bedtime, and just chat.
– Go for a meal – just the two of you.
– Plan a project that you work on together each week. For example, growing tomatoes in your veg patch, working on a project using one of these free online education resources, or trying out a new cake recipe every week.
Book recommendation: Lovebombing by Oliver James (ignore the terrible name, it’s a helpful book!).
Quick Win Number Two: “Scaffold” Positive Social Connections by Helping Your Child Connect With a Friend
Why Does Social Interaction Help Prevent Poor Mental Health?
Social connection plays a crucial role in preventing mental health problems. Regular social contact is critical to both mental and physical health. For successful relationships children need to develop healthy social skills, and they can only do this through regular connection with others.
Some children need help with social situations, especially if they are introverts, have an autism spectrum disorder, struggle with social skills, or they are experiencing tough times and have become withdrawn.
How Can Parents Help Children to Connect Socially?
Identify possible positive social relationships that you want to encourage, whatever stage the friendship is at. This might be a brand-new friendship that you would like your child to develop or an existing friendship you want to strengthen.
If your child doesn’t have any close friendship or they are in a friendship that isn’t making them happy, read my article about values and mental health. It will help your child figure out what they want and need in a positive relationship, and how to navigate difficult situations.
With a pre-teenage child, make proactive suggestions for ways in which the two children can connect. Aim to meet up as two families as this will reduce the pressure on the children. Try to make contact with the child’s parents and set up a date, such as a trip to the local park. The role of parent in engineering play dates for young children is important because you can build a strong foundation of social confidence in your child.
With teenagers, it’s more tricky, but you can help them problem-solve. For example, you can talk through the list of possible/budding friendships and help them figure out which ones are worth pursuing. Keep the conversation and non-judgmental. You can talk through different ways your teenager could initiate a connection in a way that works for them. For example, connecting online, meeting up at the park for a drink after school, or joining a club together.
Your teen may also find our friendships workbook helpful, which is inside our article about school friendship issues.
Three: Get Them Outside (By Whatever Means Necessary!)
Why Does Time Outdoors Benefit Children’s Mental Health?
Research shows that time outdoors is highly beneficial for the mental health of children. It encourages healthier responses to stress. For example, one study showed that young women walking through a forest for fifteen minutes reported lower scores for depression and anxiety. University students in a forest walking program indicated a significant decrease in depression.
Outdoor time helps counterbalance time spent sat still on social media or gaming. Research shows that too much time sitting has negative consequences for mental health (and of course physical health). Furthermore, not walking for one hour per day is considered to be a major risk factor for health. Healthy children balance indoor time with outdoor time and sedentary activity with physical activity.
How Can I Increase My Child’s Time Outdoors?
Create a new habit of getting outdoors as a family.
- Go for an evening walk together.
- Have a barbecue. Older children can get involved in the planning and cooking.
- Spend an evening chatting under the stars with blankets, if you have a garden.
- Try a new family outdoor activity, such as geocaching (highly recommended!).
You’ll find the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors extremely soothing and you will notice an increased connection family members. Time outdoors is also thought to improve sleep.
Negotiate a system for regular outdoor time to create a new habit. For example, every morning your child could go outside for 10 minutes after breakfast and kick a football around. Or you could set a new rule that your child needs to spend 30 minutes outside first if they want to go on an electronic device. Experiment with new things until you find activities that your family resonates with!
You could also encourage your child to try a new hobby that involves outdoor time, such as nature photography. As the article says though, the fastest way to get your kids outside is to go outside yourself. This will benefit your well-being too.
How to Support Your Child’s Mental Health With 3 Quick Wins: Summary
It’s never too early to teach children the importance of mental health and in particular, healthy lifestyle strategies as art of their daily routine.
For optimum well-being, children need the basic building blocks of a healthy lifestyle. The three strategies above pack a powerful punch and I highly recommend that you get going on these as soon as possible. Start with just one of the three ideas, so you stay focused.
When and How to Get Further Help
Lifestyle changes like those suggested above are just one powerful factor contributing to positive emotional health in children. Even with these changes, your child’s mental health may need additional support.
If your child’s mental health difficulties are severe or have a significant impact on daily life, you may need professional help from support services. There are various routes to getting professional support and this depends on both your situation and where you live. Here are some routes to try.
- Contact your health care provider. Your family doctor or health insurance provider will be aware of local mental health providers and can make a referral to a child therapist for a treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Speak to your child’s school. The school nurse or school counselor may be able to provide support for your child’s mental health issues. There may also be support groups or nurture groups on offer at school.
- If you are a UK parent you can join Everlief Parent Club: an online membership hub offering live workshops on child mental health challenges and parenting, Q&A sessions and a private community. The Parent Club is also a great option if you are looking for guided support from a mental health professional while your child is on a waiting list for therapy.
Further Reading About Child Mental Health
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.
To learn more tips for helping your child manage stress, join my Facebook group, Parent Tips For Positive Child Mental health UK.