It is August, which means that it is officially back to school season for most of us. Going back to school can be both exciting and worrisome for kids, along with a whole host of other emotions.
Our job as parents is to support our kids, to provide for their needs, and to guide them along the best path for life. These days, one of the most important jobs a parent has is to help support and boost our children’s mental health.
Some Facts about Childhood Mental Health
Did you know that 20% of youth ages 13-18 have a mental health condition (and 1 out of every 7 kids ages 2-8 years old have one)?
50% of all lifetime cases of mental health conditions begin before age 14 and 75% show symptoms by age 24.
There is an average delay of 8-10 years between the onset of mental health symptoms and the time in which a person receives any interventions.
50% of students with a mental health condition drop out of high school and 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental health condition.
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for children ages 10-24. And most suicides by children and youth occur during the school year (which is the opposite of what we see in the adult population).
All of these statistics are on an upward trend.
This is tragic. And these statistics are only counting the kids who have a diagnosable mental health condition. Many kids today deal with occasional bouts of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and more. They may not have a need to see a therapist or psychiatrist on a regular basis, but they certainly need the love, support, and guidance from the adults in their lives on how to navigate their emotions, thoughts, and circumstances.
Our kids desperately need us to pay attention, ask questions, and help guide them toward better mental health. Here are 16 ideas you can implement with the children in your life to boost and support positive mental health.
1. Pay attention and be involved.
Our lives are really busy and often we find ourselves driving our children from activity to event, but never taking the time to actually be together.
Honestly ask yourself, if your child were struggling with an issue or their emotions, would you even have the opportunity to notice?
We hope that our kids would come to us if they were struggling, but the truth is they won’t. Not unless we are regularly making time to be with them, ask questions, listen, pay attention, be curious, and really truly be involved in their lives. If our kids aren’t able to tell us all the little things in life because we are too busy, they most certainly won’t talk to us about the big issues either.
Be sure to slow down and make room in your schedule to talk with your kids, pay attention and be involved with their lives and relationships. Regularly ask your kids questions about their day, not just the usual, “How was your day?”, “What did you do/learn today?”, but dig deeper. Find out about the highs and low points of their day. Talk about their friendships, who did they sit with at lunch, what did they do at recess. And please, put down your phone and to do list and actually listen and pay attention to what they say with curiosity and warmth.
2. Instill a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is the belief that a person’s abilities and intelligence can be developed through hard work, practice, dedication, and motivation. On the flip side, a fixed mindset is the idea that your intelligence and abilities are “fixed” and cannot be developed or improved upon. People with a fixed mindset believe that you’re either born with it or not, and there’s not much you can do about it to improve or develop yourself.
Kids with a growth mindset have much higher self-confidence that isn’t derived from their abilities to perform and accomplish things. A growth mindset allows kids to embrace challenges, not fear failure, learn from their mistakes, embrace learning, and truly grow and develop all throughout their life. They recognize the danger of perfectionism and instead embrace the challenge to always be learning and growing.
You can encourage your child to develop a growth mindset by praising their efforts over their results. For example, “Wow, you worked hard on your homework tonight!” instead of “You are so smart!”. If your child says, “This is too hard!”, you can encourage them by explaining that hard things help us learn and grow, and help them to see that it will take both time and effort to achieve something new.
Explain a growth mindset to your kids and help them to identify their thoughts and self-talk that are keeping them stuck in a fixed mindset. Help them brainstorm new thoughts that can help them grow into a growth mindset. Let your kids know that it’s completely okay to fail. We grow by failing and learning from our mistakes. Give your kids the opportunity and support they need to embrace failures.
Need extra help? – To learn more about a Growth Mindset check out this book.
3. Encourage independence.
Take a step back. It can be so tempting as parents to step in and “help” our kids or to take care of things for them that feel small and insignificant. But its important for our kids to develop their own independence.
Kids need the opportunity to make their own mistakes, forget things, try something new and fail, and develop new skills. Our job is to give them the space to do exactly that and then to provide the support and encouragement they need along the way.
When our kids are given the chance to be independent their self-esteem has a chance to soar. They begin to learn problem-solving techniques, confidence, and they are able to recognize that mistakes and failures are not the end of the world.
An important note, independence does not mean that we get to clock out. Be sure to provide chances for independence while also still providing support and being involved with your kids as I mentioned in idea number one.
4. Cut out the criticisms.
If all your kids hear from you is criticism and words that point out all the ways they are doing things wrong, it will not only hurt your relationship, but they will also begin to tune you out completely. Constant criticism destroys self-confidence, motivation, and halts efforts and hard work.
This isn’t to say that we can’t ever provide constructive criticism to our kids, in fact, that’s really important to do. It’s also very valuable for our kids to learn how to accept criticism and learn from it. The point here is to make sure that your only interactions with your kids aren’t negative and critical. You also want to check the way that you approach criticism with your kids to make sure that you are helping them to learn and grow rather than making them feel like a hopeless failure.
5. Provide unconditional love, security, and acceptance.
Yes, I know you love your kids. But do they know it and feel it, all the time, every day, even when they mess up? Do your kids ever get the feeling that your acceptance of them is based on their grades, accomplishments, or ability to behave? Are you providing a safe, secure environment where your kids know that they are loved and accepted unconditionally?
You probably answered yes to all of those questions. But put yourself in your kid’s shoes and go through them again. To love someone means that they actually benefit from the experience of feeling your love toward them. If your child makes a mistake or misbehaves, do you respond with love and security or do you react out of your emotions of fear, anger, and frustration?
This is hard and we’ll never be perfect. But our kids have to know that we are there safe place, that we will always love them, and always accept them just as they are, flaws and all.
6. Eliminate labeling.
If a child misbehaves you don’t have a bad child. You have a child who could have made a better decision.
If a child aces an exam you don’t have a smart kid or a genius. You have a kid who worked hard and put forth a lot of effort.
We don’t use words like shy, outgoing, hyperactive, difficult, strong-willed, smart, anxious, or the like to identify and describe our kids. We don’t label our kids with words they will use to form their identity. Whether it is a good or bad label doesn’t matter. Our identity isn’t created by the words people use to describe us.
Labels reinforce a fixed mindset in which kids believe that their “label” is a fixed trait and there is nothing they can do about it. Labels often aren’t even true of a person’s overall identity, but simply an explanation of one particular behavior or situation. And when we use labels to describe our children it clouds how we view and interact with our children.
Our kids are more than just their behaviors, actions, and temper tantrums. Allow them the chance to develop into their full and true self and use your words to guide and help them with their behaviors and actions, not to label their identity.
7. Assist in problem-solving.
If we’re paying more attention to our kids, getting curious about their lives and experiences, and listening to what’s happening with them, we are bound to uncover details about the problems they are experiencing.
It can be tempting for our inner “mama bear” to jump out when we discover our kids are struggling with something. We want to fix it all, beat up the bad guys, and make it all go away. However, our kids actually need us not to take over but to assist.
We do this by asking lots of questions. This allows your child to keep talking, to see the problem from a variety of angles, and begin to come up with ideas to find a resolution all by themselves. Just ask questions and listen well, then ask more questions.
At times, you might need to step in with a little advice or assistance to help them come to a real solution. Tread carefully here. Your goal is to support and encourage their growth and independence. If they come up with a solution that you know is bad, ask more questions to help them recognize the flaws in their plan. If they get stuck and can’t come up with ideas, you might need to provide some suggestions and hints. Be sure, however, that they understand why and how you came up with the solution you are suggesting so that it will be easier for them the next time around.
8. Model and teach positive thinking.
Your thoughts are one of the most important pieces of your mental health. What happens between your two ears can literally affect every part of your life. This is, of course, true for your kids as well.
Our kids learn best from modeling and imitation. What they see is what they do.
If they see you constantly criticizing, focusing on the negative of every situation, feeling anxious and dwelling on all the problems in life, then that is exactly what they will do as well.
Work on yourself before you try to fix someone else, including your kids. Having good mental health yourself (or getting the help and support you need to get there) is by far the most important thing you can do to improve your children’s chances of having good mental health.
Need extra help? – Read this explanation of how your thoughts control everything in your life.
9. Get them physically active.
Physical activity, especially outside is a great way to boost mental health. It lowers stress levels, helps you sleep better, improves your mood, and changes your outlook. There’s not a whole lot of time and opportunity for recess and physical activity in most schools these days, so make it your priority to get your kids active on a regular basis.
10. Help them identify and pursue stress-relieving activities.
Childhood (and teenager-hood) is stressful for our kids. We get this notion in our heads that kids have it so easy, but the reality is that they get stressed out just like we do. It’s important for our kids to recognize stress and anxiety and find healthy ways to deal with it. The better they are at this now, the better off they will be when the stresses of adulthood arrive at their door.
Everyone is different, so what feels stress-relieving for some is extremely stress-inducing for others. Work with your kids to figure out what works for them and then make sure they have the time and space to regularly pursue these types of activities. Also be sure that their calendars have plenty of flexibility in them to allow for rest and relaxation.
11. Make sure they get good sleep.
Our mental health will always suffer if we are constantly operating in a sleep deficit. Pay attention to how much sleep your kids are getting and help them find ways to improve their sleep if they need it. This might mean taking devices out of the bedroom, bumping up or reinstalling a bedtime, or rearranging the family schedule or routine.
12. Limit devices and monitor social media.
I know, we hear this all the time. It is so hard to limit screen time and it feels like we’re fighting against the entire culture if we push back and put limits on getting our kids devices or giving them access to social media.
The hard truth is that depression, anxiety, and suicide rates in youth have skyrocketed in the years since social media came on the scene. There are some incredible opportunities and resources available to our kids through our modern electronics and social media, but it also opens the door to a whole lot of negativity and danger.
We have to be vigilant about what we allow and what we monitor. Be informed and knowledgeable about what your kids are doing online. Learn about the apps they use. Pay attention to what is happening on their feeds and step in if you see anything questionable or unsafe.
13. Create an atmosphere of trust, honesty, and respect.
Your kids will not come to you if they can’t trust you. They won’t trust you if you aren’t honest and respectful toward them. I see so many parents who demand respect from their kids but don’t offer any semblance of respect to their kids. You have to model what you expect, that’s how kids learn.
Make sure that your home is a place where everyone is honest, respectful, and trustworthy. Keep your word, admit when you make a mistake, and treat your kids with respect at all times. If your kids need you, they will come to you, only if they can trust that you are safe, trustworthy, and dependable, and will treat them with respect, even if they’ve messed up in a huge way.
Need extra help? – This post shares more on how to raise kids with respect.
14. Recognize the difference between behavior issues and mental/emotional issues.
If your child comes home from school and throws a fit every day, I can promise you that they aren’t dealing with a behavioral issue. They don’t need you to punish and chastise them. That won’t solve anything. What they are dealing with is a mental or emotional issue or possibly a physical issue.
It might be that they are just hungry or need a nap. But more likely than not, they are struggling with something at school. They blow up at home where they know they are safe. Count it as a blessing that they take their emotions out on you and not at school. However, your next task is to work with them to uncover the issue and help them develop coping mechanisms and ways to handle the issue without blowing up into a temper tantrum each day.
We often think of situations like this to be mostly focused on the pre-school and early elementary years, but in truth, all kids, and adults, sometimes act out behaviorally when they are struggling with an emotional challenge. Have you ever blown up at your spouse over a tiny problem after a long day at work? We all have tantrums and make poor behavioral choices when we are feeling stressed, anxious, sad, hungry, or tired. Help your child learning healthy coping mechanisms through these times instead of punishing them.
15. Pay attention to your child’s food and nutrition.
I’ve said it many times on this blog before but your physical health, your mental health, and your spiritual health are all very closely linked and related. Problems in one area can make problems in another.
There have been multiple studies that have shown a connection between the foods you eat and their effect on your mental health and behavior. Children can be especially sensitive to these behavioral effects. Pay attention to their moods and behaviors and do some experimenting if you notice any patterns between the foods they eat and the ways they behave.
Some foods that are known to cause problems with children include artificial dyes, dairy, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and food allergens. Many kids have been diagnosed with behavioral or mental health conditions when they actually have a food intolerance.
Need extra help? – The GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet was originally created to treat patients with autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, OCD, depression, and similar mental health condition. It can be a good starting point to research the link between nutrition and mental health.
16. Get help when needed.
For yourself or your children, always, always obtain the help of a medical professional when it’s warranted. And if you aren’t sure if it’s warranted, take the safe route and get a consultation.
If your kid breaks their arm you would rush them to the emergency room for treatment. Take their mental health just as seriously. Help your kids recognize the value in therapy and medicines if they need it.
Any time you see a list of 16 things to do it can get overwhelming. This post is not meant to overwhelm but to educate and inspire you to take action. Look through the list to find your weakest areas that could use the most attention and improvement and start there. You know your child and family situation best. The point is to do something and keep our child’s mental health at the forefront of our attention.