Supporting Our Kids' Mental Health

It’s been a tough few years, and the stress has taken a toll on our children’s well-being. More and more young people are struggling with mood imbalances, stress, and anxiety. Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics, together with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association, declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, calling for increased mental health services in schools and local communities. But there are also things we can do at home to better support our children’s mental and emotional well-being.

Mental health often doesn’t get attention until we think there’s a problem. But it’s better to think of mental health as an important part of overall health and wellness, which we can support through a healthy lifestyle. Just like physical health, we can proactively nurture mental health through everyday healthy habits, and we can pass on those habits to our kids. Here are a few tips for protecting and nurturing your children’s mental health.

1. Stay Tuned In

Children and teens are still learning how to identify and articulate their own feelings. But parents can help them learn by paying attention to their verbal and nonverbal cues and responding with empathy. This creates a safe space for kids to experience their feelings and shows that it’s ok to express them. It also helps model for kids how to tune into themselves to understand their own feelings and needs. 

Watch for any behavioral changes that could signal a mental health issue. While it’s normal for kids and teens to go through changes in behavior and temperament as they develop, if the change is new or persistent, there may be something deeper going on. Depression or anxiety in children and teens doesn’t always look like sadness or withdrawal; it may also appear as anger, fatigue, persistent headaches or stomach aches, or loss of interest in activities. If you are concerned, get professional help.

2. Provide Healthy Structure

Kids feel more secure when there are predictable routines and firm boundaries in place. This includes a healthy schedule with regular bedtimes, wake-up times, and meal times to help instill healthy habits and keep their circadian rhythms on track. It also means setting clear expectations around their behavior and their responsibilities, such as homework and chores. This doesn’t mean that every part of the day has to be scheduled – in fact, it’s good for kids to have some unstructured time to encourage creativity and independence. But having some overall structure and regularity to their lives is reassuring for kids, because they know what to expect.  

3. Create Communication Rituals

As kids and teens grow older, busier, and more independent, it’s easy for parents to lose connection with them and what’s going on in their lives. That’s why it’s important to build some time for regular communication into the family schedule. It could be a regular family dinner or game night, a son or daughter date, or a simple check-in at bedtime. As long as it’s reasonably consistent, it will help your kids develop a habit of communication with you that builds trust and connection. Show kids that they will be listened to with love and support no matter what, and they will be more likely to come to you when they have a problem. 

4. Set Social Media Boundaries

Social media apps are designed to be addictive. They hijack the brain’s natural reward response to social interaction to keep us hooked. This is especially true for adolescents, whose brains are still developing and learning self-control. While social media does have positive social benefits, it can also trigger anxiety around image and social status, and it shouldn’t become a substitute for off-screen socializing. Establishing healthy boundaries around social media use can help kids develop a more balanced relationship with it. 

A recent study found that adolescents score better on mental health assessments when their parents set clear household rules for technology use, including healthy limits for themselves. Designate certain times of the day for media use, and have a place where devices can be retired out of sight when they aren’t in use. Adults should lead by example: if phones aren’t allowed at the dinner table, that goes for everyone. Make sure that kids’ social media time is also balanced with real-world playdates and group activities.

5. Talk about Feelings

Kids learn how to regulate and express their feelings by watching their parents do it. Being open and honest about your own feelings, even when they are negative, shows kids that feelings are normal and provides a healthy model for how to deal with them. Talk to your kids about experiences you had that were stressful or frustrating and how you handled your emotions in that situation. It’s also important to be honest about your mistakes and show kids how to bounce back from them. Share your feelings of regret, but also model self-forgiveness. This shows kids that it’s ok to mess up, and teaches emotional resilience.

6. Encourage Healthy Choices

The mind and body are intricately connected, and physical health is naturally linked with mental health. Simple healthy habits like getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and getting regular exercise have been shown to help protect mental health and support a healthy mood. You can help give kids a healthy foundation by providing nutritious meals, enforcing bedtimes, and encouraging outdoor play, sports, and other physical activities. Kids learn by example, so it’s also important to practice what you preach. Not only will you be helping your kids build healthy habits for life, you’ll also be showing them what self-care looks like. 

Make sure kids unglue themselves from their screens regularly to spend time outdoors. This is important for their eye health and visual development, and also makes sure they get some healthy sun exposure. Sunlight helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms, which help maintain healthy mood and sleep patterns. Sunshine is also the best way to get vitamin D, which is essential for bone health and immune health and also supports a balanced mood. A recent systematic review concluded that vitamin D has a significant positive influence on mental health in children. Lack of vitamin D is also surprisingly common in children, most likely due to lack of sun, so you’ll want to keep an eye on this. 

Vitamins and Supplements for Kids and Teens

Our vitamins and supplements for kids and teens are designed to help support a healthy lifestyle. Lack of key vitamins and minerals can affect brain health, mood, and stress response. Our multivitamins for kids and teens are made with real, organic fruits and vegetables and include 20+ vitamins and minerals to help fill nutritional gaps in their diet. Our plant-based vitamin D3 gummies for kids can help kids maintain healthy vitamin D levels in winter or whenever there’s a lack of sunshine. And our melatonin gummies for kids can help support healthy sleep patterns when circadian rhythms get off track.  

References:

1. McCarthy, Claire MD. In children and teens, depression doesn’t always look like sadness. Harvard Health Publishing, March 2018.

2.  Moreno M, Binger K, Zhao Q, Eickhoff J, Minich M, Uhls Y. Digital Technology and Media Use by Adolescents: Latent Class Analysis. JMIR Pediatr Parent 2022;5(2):e35540. https://pediatrics.jmir.org/2022/2/e35540 DOI: 10.2196/35540

3. Głąbska D, Kołota A, Lachowicz K, Skolmowska D, Stachoń M, Guzek D. The Influence of Vitamin D Intake and Status on Mental Health in Children: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2021 Mar 16;13(3):952. doi: 10.3390/nu13030952. PMID: 33809478; PMCID: PMC7999324.

4. How to nurture your child’s mental health. Children’s.com.

5. McCarthy, Claire MD. The mental health crisis among children and teens: How parents can help. Harvard Health Publishing, March 2022.

6. Langham, Madeleine. How Parents Can Support a Child’s Mental Health. Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program.