10 Top Tips to Boost Mental Health in Children & Teens


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):

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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).
  1. 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).
  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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.









Staying sane in the summer – How to occupy young kids in the hols

Photo Credit: Brit, Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Brit, Creative Commons

It’s day three of the holidays and the weather is not looking promising.

Your baby is learning to crawl into places not designed to be child friendly, your toddler is whining for something to eat – again – and has already had two toilet training mishaps this morning.  Meanwhile, your eldest has decided to make it his mission in life to annoy his siblings in any shape or form, which usually leads to the production of agonising shrieks several decibel levels beyond health and safety standards.

The house, which vaguely resembled some sense of order just a couple of hours ago, is now descending at break-neck speed into utter chaos. … And to think you used to be pretty organised and in control! And there’’s another 5 or so weeks of this to go still – Aaarrgggg! If you’’re in need of some ideas on how to navigate the jungle of kiddie-dom and survive the summer holidays, read on….

Devise a plan

Just like at school,– divide the day up into sessions. Morning, lunch, afternoon, tea. It may sound obvious, but it’’s easier to manage “chunks” of a day than thinking “what on earth am I going to do with the kids all day today?” It doesn’’t mean you have to micromanage every single activity your children are engaging in, it’’s more a case of being one step ahead when they seem fed up and start misbehaving: you’’ll already have something up your sleeve to help occupy them rather than despairing “over why they can’’t just go off and play nicely?” When you hear that wonderful phrase that you really wish your 4 year old hadn’’t learnt –  ““I’’m bored!””, you’’ll be able to come up with something of a convincing response. A great idea is to list all the various possible activities for indoor or outdoor play. You may be surprised at how long your list gets. Ours includes things like: make a poster, have a music/singing session, go for a long hike, and have a water pistol fight.

Boredom Busters

Save a couple of surplus toys or gifts from birthdays or summer fêtes especially for rainy days – e.g. play-dough kit, pack of cards, jigsaws. Alternatively, ask the grandparents to bring such items instead of sweets when they visit (this will have the added bonus of helping to keep their hyperactivity levels down). Or you can always go to the pound store one day and stock up on funky crayons, colouring books, bubbles and plasticine. Instead of just forming shapes with plasticine, my youngest son loved making imprints with various toys and models. Think creative.

Sure-fire hits (for free)

I’’ve never met a child that doesn’’t enjoy hide and seek or a good old tickle fight. You will be one popular parent if you’’re willing to do some silly stuff with your kids occasionally. The squeals may be loudest when you chase them around the house wearing a makeshift mask and wielding a tea-towel or a cardboard tube, but the smiles will be worth it! Another idea for older ones: get them to set up an assault course in the garden and have fun with a stopwatch to see how quickly they can complete the course. Dressing up & role play can also be fun for all ages up to 10; you can enjoy creating outfits from some old clothes or curtains. And don’’t underestimate the fun to be had from setting up “camp” in the living room or under the dining table.

Always go out

Even if it means digging out wellies from the cupboard and huddling under umbrellas in pouring rain to post some letters and pick up some milk from the corner shop. The day will go much quicker if you get out even for only half an hour. All day stuck inside with one, two or more kids is enough to drive even the sanest of people somewhat stir crazy. You never know, you may even bump into another adult for a couple of minutes of real conversation! However, don’t be tempted to consider prolonged shopping sprees as a viable way to pass the time! Try to keep visits into town short and sweet, leaving enough time to get back home before a toddler starts kicking off. As ever, timing is crucial.

Go on a picnic

You get fresh air, a chance for running off beans and all the crumbs cleared up in one easy move. Phone a friend to join you, and then you’’ve also got someone to watch your kids if you need to take one to the loo or change someone’’s nappy. We do picnics at least once a week during the hols, and sometimes have a picnic in the garden as a spin off version.

Bargain with the older ones

For example… ‘If you want me to play swingball, Pop-Up-Pirate or build Lego with you, please put away XYZ first, or play with the baby for 15 minutes first. Oh, you’’d like an ice-lolly? Absolutely, why not! But first you need to clear up all those crayons and cut up pieces of paper’. Don’t just give them something for nothing all the time (apart from love, that is). That way, they’’ll learn some responsibility as they grow up and start to see that life doesn’’t revolve around them and their wants.

Play dates

Even though the noise gets doubled and the possibilities for arguments increase, you’’ll get a buzz out of seeing that your kids actually aren’’t the naughtiest in the world and at the same time enjoy being with someone taller than three foot who’’s capable of discussing something more intelligible than Moshie Monsters or The Hoobs. You’’ll come home feeling somewhat revived and cheerful too, having spent an afternoon with a fellow parent. Just avoid talking about the kids all the time; how about politics, gardening or the theatre for a change?

Save the TV or DVDs…

…For when you desperately need some peace and quiet or when a young one really needs to calm down from a busy day. It’’s also great to save it till 30 minutes before you go out. Kids get a chance to recharge their batteries before, say charging around the park, while you get the chance to get all your stuff ready without little ones distracting you every 6.4 seconds. So – use TV time to suit YOU and your plans, not just because your child feels like it at any random moment.

Say yes to offers of help that come your way

…whether it’s that older friend from toddler group, mother-in-law, nice neighbour down the street, or even your partner willing to take off Wednesday morning to give you a break in the week. And if you see a holiday club advertised outside a local church, where your school-aged children can go for free for a couple of hours each day, then why haven’t you signed up for it yet? (Just check their credentials and procedures for child protection to ensure they’’re worthy of taking care of your precious offspring.)

Be voucher savvy

Be sure to cut out and save coupons or vouchers for the occasional trip to the zoo or theme park. They tend to be found in mags such as the ‘Term Times’ which are given out to school children. Doing so could well save you quite a few pounds and pence, leaving you with some extra cash for ice lolllies and other treats.

So let the fun begin, and at the end of each day make sure you reserve some time and energy for a child-free pursuit that you enjoy. And remember – even if your day has seemed like a bit of a disaster – each morning is a fresh start to think positively and a chance to re-connect with your children by engaging in their world.

This article first appeared in the now defunct webzine ‘LookingatLife’ in 2008, under the heading ‘How to Occupy Your Kids’. This is an amended version.