There’s been much in the news lately about mental health services in the UK that are overstretched and unable to support all children and young people promptly due to under-funding and under-staffing. While the state of children’s mental health is reaching crisis point in some regions, and increased pressure from school and social media is blamed for this development, parents are desperate to know how they can help their child or teen who may be struggling. Depression and anxiety are on the rise in under 18s.
This post is not meant to provide medical support or guidance, and I strongly advise that young people are seen by a GP and referred for specialist support if they are in crisis. This list is more of a recommendation for parents and carers whose child is currently coping well at this time or may be starting to show signs of poor mental health. These are things that I try to practice with my own children and that I discuss with them as part of their overall health and well-being.
The best things I believe you can do to foster good mental health in children and teens (in no particular order):
- A balanced, varied and mostly healthy diet – to include good fats such as fish and nuts. Avoid low fat everything, growing bodies benefit from consuming butter and full fat yoghurt or milk. And of course greens. If you have a fussy eater, just keep buying the one green vegetable that they will eat, e.g. my sons always liked broccoli but would never touch cabbage or courgettes. I’m sick to death of broccoli in meals, but can be assured that my kids are ingesting enough folic acid! However, do not obsess over food (which may also lead to anxiety in some individuals). Occasional junk food never harmed anyone, just try to keep things balanced.
- Sufficient sleep. That means enforcing some bedtimes, especially during the week. All those times I’ve ever felt really low always coincided with seasons of interrupted or lack of sleep. A child or young person that is not getting enough sleep regularly will find that it affects their concentration, their mood and their ability to handle tough situations or disappointment. Read more about that here.
- Helping them find their niche/thing that they love – whether that’s animals, skate-boarding, singing, acting, gardening, writing, volunteering, whatever…encourage them in that. (It’ll mean trying out lots of stuff but many activities are free, so keep on the lookout for information around your community, at the library etc.) Offer to help your child with their hobbies and pursuits and show an interest in what they love (even if model aeroplanes or horses are totally not your thing). Engaging in meaningful activities will help improve mood and is promoted by occupational therapists. More on that here.
- Socialisation. Encourage them out the house to meet other people, engage, do stuff. Get them involved in any neighbourhood or local events/ festivals/ special events in town. Keep them coming to family get-togethers and celebrations even if they’re bored at the thought of visiting their auntie or second cousin. Ask them to join you with an activity or help at an event. Getting out and having face to face interaction is a crucial part of optimum mental health. Find out more here.
- a) Limited screen time – especially for under 12s. Too much screen time makes for grumpy kids who lose passion for anything else in life. Tip: no gadgets in bedrooms overnight. Set Wifi limits, so it switches off at a pre-determined time on their devices (Don’t worry, it won’t affect YOUR Wifi access!) This will help immensely with no 2. Once the Wifi’s gone, most have no further use for their device. Also, encourage them to use the internet more to help them with no 3, or to learn skills and be creative (you can learn to do anything on YouTube) rather than just consuming media all the time. Warn them of the pitfalls of social media and wanting to be liked. Keep under 12s far away from social media, they are too young to handle it.
b) Also keep porn away from your children by installing everything you can get your hands on. (Link to help with that) Porn is depressing and negatively impacts motivation. Read here and here. Teenagers will inevitably come across it, but at least you’ve done your best to protect them as children.
- Listen to your kids/teens. Spend some time with them on their own every day, even if it’s just a few mins. A good question to ask them: What was the best thing and the worst thing that happened today? Be supportive, no matter how trivial what they share seems. Above all, enjoy every positive interaction with your child. The negative interactions may be unavoidable, and sometimes the positive moments appear randomly, or you have to schedule them in. Either way, let your child or teen see that you just really like them, even if they’ve been annoying just half an hour earlier. (They know that you love them).
- Outdoor exercise and sunshine. Make opportunity for this as often as you can. Encourage teens to sit outside when it’s sunny to do revision. As a parent or carer, model this yourself; don’t lounge about on the sofa during all your free moments. Many young people look pale and may be lacking vitamin D due to spending most of their time indoors. And guess what? Low vitamin D levels are also linked to depression. (Read here.) Just bear in mind that vitamin D is a FAT soluble vitamin – hence the need for consuming some full fat products, otherwise it’s not fully absorbed by the body. (Refer to No 1).
- Positive, uplifting movies to watch together. Now and again find a film that promotes strength of character and of the human spirit, something that encourages empathy – e.g. The Hundred Foot Journey, August Rush or The Lucky One. Or check out some from this list. Even if it’s not their type of thing, coax them with popcorn or say you’ll watch their choice of movie next time. And teens are never too old for the occasional feel-good, family flick. The same goes for uplifting songs and music.
- Homework stress busters. Offer to help with ideas for how to complete homework more quickly, e.g. good websites to look at, how to plan an essay, suggestions for revision. I recommend a short burst of exercise (e.g. Pogo stick or trampoline) prior to homework, to send oxygen to the brain and boost serotonin levels right before getting stuck into something they might hate. Yep, that ties in with number 7 nicely. Also, do NOT encourage perfectionism with homework. A good job is good enough. Education is important but homework is only a small part of that. Discourage teens from spending all evening doing homework; make time for some downtime.
- Read books. When they’re younger, read to them, then read with them. When they’re teens, encourage them to read at least one book in each of the school holidays. Hand them something you’ve read that you’d recommend. When you’re on holiday, maybe have book nights where you read a chapter of something together out on the deck or balcony or outside your tent. Reading is pure escapism from the day to day drudgery or stresses of modern life and has been shown to make you happier.
All the above may not be able to prevent depression or mental disorders in a person who is predisposed to them, but these suggestions can certainly help to bolster a healthy mind.