According to Healthdirect, approximately 1 in 7 children under the age of 18 have experienced a mental health disorder. Mental health impacts children’s lives in many ways, including their school performance, social life, and overall well being. Developing a strong foundation of coping skills and strategies during childhood can help prevent the negative impacts of mental illness, and prepare children for success as they grow and develop.
There are many ways that you can support your children’s mental health during your daily parenting. Ensuring that they have the ability to understand and process their emotions and experiences (both negative and positive) using healthy coping mechanisms provides them with a strong mental toolkit. Read on to learn about five ways we recommend to build mental health strategies into your family’s daily life.
If you feel your child is struggling with their mental health, it’s important to get them professional support. Kids Helpline, Headspace, and your children’s paediatrician are all good places to start.
1. Model mindfulness
Children are always observing and learning from the ways we act, so one of the most impactful ways to teach them is through modelling behaviour. Mindfulness is a useful strategy for handling stress, and the earlier children begin to learn it the better equipped they will be. You can model mindfulness by making an effort to openly practice mindful strategies as often as you can. This can include taking a big deep breath, putting a hand on your heart or belly, counting backwards, or listing things you see in the room. Taking a moment to practice a mindfulness technique will help you be able to respond rather than react, and will help your children learn these calming strategies as well.
2. Model positive coping strategies
Another important strategy to model for your children is emotional regulation through positive coping activities. Similar to mindfulness exercises, emotional regulation strategies should be practiced as much as possible. Strategies include physical activities such as going for a walk or dancing, sensory activities such as making tea or listening to music, and connection activities such as calling a friend or initiating a hug. You can include your children in the activities, and narrate what you are doing and why, e.g. “I’m feeling overwhelmed, I think going for a walk will help me feel more calm, would you like to come with me?”.
3. Focus on key times of the day
Life gets busy fast, and the idea of trying to model positive behaviour and spend connecting time with children can feel overwhelming when we are faced with packed schedules. Luckily, you do not have to focus on this every second of the day. Instead, think about these times: the first few minutes after your children wake up, the first few minutes when they get home from school, and the last few minutes before they go to bed. If you can fill these times with positive experiences such as cuddles, stories, conversations about their day, or other things your children like to do with you, those few minutes alone will make a big difference in the trajectory of their day.
4. Talk about challenges
It is important to openly talk about negative experiences and emotions as well as positive ones. Discussing worries and challenges with your children will allow them to acknowledge all their feelings in a constructive way, an important skill as they grow up. For younger children, reading books about characters who face challenges and discussing as you read is a great way to incorporate this into daily life. For older children and teens, you can initiate open discussions about challenges in their lives, and share your own (when appropriate). Demonstrate how to discuss difficulties that you have faced and encourage them to share their own without judgment. Teens in particular can have a hard time verbalising how they cope, so creating a space for that early on can help improve your communication and allow them to feel comfortable working with you to solve their problems.
5. Stick to routines
Maintaining a sense of routine is important for children of all ages. This is especially important during times of high excitement or stress, such as during exam period or the holidays. This includes maintaining a regular sleep schedule, balanced meals, and time away technology. While this may be difficult, especially during busy times like the holidays, the more you can maintain a sense of routine the more regulated your children will be. If you have a packed day of visiting relatives and a late dinner, try to have a structured day and early bedtime the next night. And make sure you also fit alone time and low excitement activities into your family’s schedule!