This generation of parents has become so much more aware of the importance of our children’s mental health. The pandemic has intensified that awareness with many of us and our kids struggling with their mental health for the first time. While we might realize how important it is to take care of our emotional well-being, it can feel tricky to know how to go about doing that effectively, particularly when it comes to our kids.
Here are 5 things you can do to boost your child’s mental health (and your own, for that matter). While some of these might seem intuitive or perhaps even insignificant, what we know from studying child development and children’s mental health, is that these “small” things can actually make a huge difference when practiced regularly.
- Make rituals for conversation and expression
Set up a routine time of day or type of activity that gives you and your kids a predictable and reliable opportunity for checking in with one another. Ask your kids open-ended questions that allow them air time to share what’s on their minds, what has impacted them that day, and how they are feeling. Get curious and let them know you’re interested, but avoid pressuring them for details or inserting any correction – the purpose of this time together is to hear one another, not change or fix anything. Once this becomes a family ritual, these “check-ins” will start to feel like a safe space for expressing feelings that they can count on.
- Promote daily physical movement
When we experience intense emotions, hormones, chemicals, and neurotransmitters fire and flow in your brain and throughout your nervous system. Moving in ways that use both sides of your body – like dancing, playing an instrument, going for a walk/run, or climbing at the playground – helps us avoid the physiological processes of our emotions from building up in our bodies. Anxiety in particular needs an avenue of physical release. Movement helps us feel “unstuck” and it helps us be more in the present moment – both of these can reduce the sensation of anxiety in our bodies. Practicing movement regularly is a powerful way to take care of our mental health.
- Connect intentionally
Parents juggle so many competing demands, making it tempting to multitask even when we’re playing with our kids. Caregivers might feel guilty for not spending enough time with their kids, but the quality of time spent with your kids is more important for their mental health than the length of time spent together. One hour of your undivided attention can be much more valuable than multiple hours putting in partial effort and care. Instead of feeling like you have to “put in the time”, connect in shorter spurts but with higher intention. Invite them into connection with you, make them feel like the centre of your world and you might find that both your cups end up more full.
- Recreate healthy boundaries
As if parenting life hadn’t already blurred the lines of responsibilities, the pandemic certainly bumped it up a notch. For many parents, working at home has meant wearing all the hats at the same time with little distinction between tasks or roles. When Covid-19 first hit, we may have thought waiting it out was a realistic option, but a year and a half later, we’ve discovered the need for some sustainable adjustments to how we live, work and parent. It can be helpful to reimagine what healthy boundaries mean for your family in the current circumstances so everyone can know what’s fair to expect. Kids thrive when they have information to work with and sharing the new boundaries for the new normal can go a long way in helping them feel settled and secure.
- Model self care
If you want your kids to learn to honour their health and well-being, there’s no better way to teach them than by doing it yourself. Talk with your children about what self care can look like and practice it with them. Try new things together and notice how they make you feel. Create lists of things that calm your nervous system or things that make you feel alive, then put them into action. Demonstrate that your health is worth your time and energy and it will set the tone for your children going forward.
Wishing you good mental health and strong family connections,
Karen Peters has created online resources to further support you on your family’s mental health journey. Subscribe for access to monthly Living Room Learning Newsletters covering a variety of family mental health-related topics.
Karen also hosts Parenting in the Trenches, a podcast for caregivers who value their family’s mental health and want to both connect with the stickiness of parenting and grow in their understanding of emotional well-being. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts.