Promoting healthy mental and emotional wellbeing in children

mental health

by Chaneen Saliee |

This children's mental health week (7-13 February) I thought I’d share my tips, thoughts and experiences and raise awareness about the brilliant organisation place2be who run the #childrensmentalhealthweek. In this article you’ll find resources and support so that you can ensure the children in your life develop and maintain healthy mental and emotional wellbeing.

Place2be is an organisation that is dedicated to supporting children’s mental health and offers support and resources to parents, caregivers and schools so that they can help children with their mental health.

In the last few years there has been a huge rise in children that are being referred for specialist mental health treatment. 1 in 6 children and young people have a diagnosable mental health problem, and many continue to have these problems into adulthood. According to the BBC, during the pandemic (2020) this number increased by 77% compared to the previous year.

With this it is important to note that ‘only the young children and teenagers with the most serious mental health problems are referred for specialist care,’ writes BBC’s Education Editor, Branwen Jeffreys. This means there are still many more children and families without that specialist support.

Anna @anna_skates is an advocate for children and families who creates insightful content on her Instagram and offers coaching for parents.

I spoke to Anna, and asked what it means to really look after our children’s mental health and here’s what she had to say. “I firmly believe that the way we treat children now, the way we respond to them, show up for them, and think about them has a profound impact on their mental health. It is said that the way we speak to and about our children becomes their inner voice. So because our thoughts become beliefs and beliefs become actions, my primary goal is to shift the narrative about children in society. I so desperately want to bring us all to a genuine understanding of and belief in the humanity and dignity of children. It’s the key to changing the world for the better. Our children aren’t just part of the future - they’re here now and they belong.”

Growing together

The theme of this year’s children’s mental health week is ‘Growing Together’. Human beings change and grow – we do it all the time and in many different ways. Physical growth is easy to see as we grow from babies to children, teenagers to adults. But growing emotionally is also an important part of our development.

Since we grow and develop each and every day from every interaction we have with life - why not try to spend sometime this week talking with your child about how much they have grown. You could go through some old photos, reminiscing about a time when they felt scared or nervous but were able to overcome and grew as a result. Talk also about yourself - stories about your childhood or times when you too have felt nervous and have grown more confident or more protective. These conversations will help your child to realise they are not alone in experiencing and feeling hard feelings.

In addition to this you might also like to spend the week looking for times where your child is faced with an opportunity for growth. Perhaps a younger sibling will not share a toy and they choose to walk away rather than fighting. This is a brilliant opportunity to praise a child and help them to see how they have developed such control over their own emotions to be able to walk away.

As a parent, no doubt you’ve gone through the squabble of siblings or at a playdate when the kids decide they want to play with the same toy, forcing you to inevitably stop whatever you’re doing to try to diffuse the situation. My girls were much the same, until I realised that the girls would dwell on these ‘little tiffs’ for much longer than I thought was necessary. It would be days later and I would hear, ‘I don't like her because she took my doll’. And It broke my mama heart. These ‘little tiffs’ weren’t little to them, it really hurt their feelings, and influenced how they would go on to interact with each other and other children. So I did some research and began to implement ways to help my daughters understand that there are other ways to deal with an upsetting situation such as this. Ways that would help them to feel empowered.

Make an ‘independent jar’

In the example of my own girls’ ‘little tiff’, my four year old Jasmine walked away from the squabble over a doll and did colouring instead. Prior to this we had shared a number of conversations about how snatching makes both of the girls feel, what is likely to happen if the girls end up fighting and we spoke about the different things Jasmine can do while waiting for a toy she really wants. We made Jasmine her very own independent jar full of activities that she can do by herself and she knows that she is allowed to go into her room, the living room or the garden to take some time for herself. It’s liberating for a child to know that they can find a way out of a hard situation for themselves.

Why not set your child the task of noticing when they are in a difficult and emotional situation and prepare them with a few ideas of other things they can do to help themselves out of it.

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Suggestions (write these out on little strips of paper and pop them in a jar, add more activities based on what they currently love to do - such as build and play with train set):

  • Use a mantra: I am here. I am breathing. I am okay.

  • They can repeat these affirmations while taking deep breaths.

  • Create a list or a jar of some ideas of things that they can do alone: draw a picture of how you would like to feel or of your 5-10 favourite things. Organise a section of your room. Look for 5 things you’ve never noticed before.

  • Put a timer on for a few minutes and lie on the floor and take deep breaths until the timer goes off. The challenge is to stay until the timer goes off.

  • Find / think of 5 objects you love that belong to you / your family, sit with each of them in mind and remember, how you felt when you received it, how you received it (was it a gift? Did you save up pocket money?) and say why you are grateful for it, how has it made life nicer for you since having it.

  • Walk around the house and touch every wall in the house. Challenge yourself to see how quickly you can touch each wall.

These are some of the activities that children can do and it can be adapted in any way you see fit. They’re designed to get children practising to use their body, mind and breath to be present in the moment and realise that they are in fact okay - even though their emotions feel intense. I believe it’s important to raise children to see and allow space for their emotions - yes even the big loud ones - but also to give them simple ways to acknowledge that they are not their emotions and do not have to dwell in big emotions or act from a highly emotional state.

For even more resources in how to support your child’s mental health head to Parentingsmart.org.uk

The relationship between food and mental health

Another way to support your child’s wellbeing is through nutrition. This is one that is often missed when talking about mental health. Research has shown that there is a close relationship between what we eat and our mental health. Rhiannon Lambert, leading nutritionist and author of ‘Re-Nourish; A Simple Way To Eat Well’, explains “We know that everyone has a relationship with food... we now have a lot of evidence that our neurotransmitters (the signals in our brain) are influenced directly by the foods we eat. “We know now that 90% of serotonin (happy hormones) are produced in our guts. You want to have a happy, healthy gut - which comes from a happy, balanced diet.” If children are not eating a balanced diet then they have a higher risk of developing imbalances in their mental wellbeing.

So what does a healthy balanced diet look like?

It is advised that our children should be ‘Eating a variety of foods keeps our meals interesting and flavorful. It’s also the key to a healthy and balanced diet because each food has a unique mix of nutrients—both mac­ronutrients (carbohydrateprotein, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).’

Veggies

  - The more veggies – and the greater the variety – the better.

- (Potatoes and French fries don’t count as vegetables because of their negative impact on blood sugar.)

Fruits

 - ​​Eat plenty of fruits of all colours.

- Choose whole fruits or sliced fruits (rather than fruit juices; limit fruit juice to one small glass per day).

Whole grains

 - Go for whole grains or foods made with minimally processed whole grains. The less processed the grains, the better.

- Whole grains—whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, and foods made with them, such as whole-grain pasta and 100% whole-wheat bread—have a gentler effect on blood sugar and insulin than white rice, bread, pizza crust, pasta, and other refined grains.

Healthy Protein

 - Choose beans and peas, nuts, seeds, and other plant-based healthy protein options, as well as fish, eggs, and poultry.

- Limit red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and avoid processed meats (bacon, deli meats, hot dogs, sausages).

Ensuring that your child is eating well and supplementing their diet with the right nutrients will provide your child with better mental and physical wellbeing.

Get active

Exercise is also important for children’s mental wellbeing. Ensuring that your child is getting enough exercise can be difficult to know - so why not spend this week learning a little together about how important exercise is and how much exercise is needed. Remember that exercise looks different to everyone but the aim is to get your body moving and your heart beating and pumping that oxygen around your body.

The girls and I love a good dance party in the living room - we keep grooving until we can go no more and that is how we know we have had enough. I love dancing as a form of exercise for kids and adults because it’s free, it doesn't need any equipment, there is no ‘right way’ to dance and it is a fun bonding activity. We love Just Dance videos on Youtube that  guide you through fun dance moves.

You can also implement workout routines. Top Tip: let the kids lead: it’s super fun for the kids when you get them to lead the exercise circle and you have to do what they say. They also get to practice their leadership skills which will help boost their self esteem.

Being in the great outdoors

In addition to exercise, being outdoors is vital to all human’s wellbeing and especially true for a growing child. ‘There are a myriad of health benefits for children who spend time playing outdoors, including an increased intake of vitamin D and decreased hyperactivity and depression. Children also tend to be more active outdoors which can reduce the risk of child obesity and will give your child the opportunity to benefit from creative and interactive play’. Research has shown that going on a short walk of 10 -15 minutes a day all help to improve mood. So aim to get outdoors as often as you can.

Here are some tips by the experts at Kumon.co.uk for encouraging your child to play outdoors.

  • When you go for walks in the woods or park, allow your child to decide which paths to take. Remain close to ensure their safety but let them choose where to explore, encouraging their independence and interest in exploring nature.

  • Take a camera with you so that your child can take pictures of things and places they find particularly interesting. You can also encourage them to look up birds or animals that they see, to learn more about them and their habitat. Your local library will have plenty of child-friendly books about nature.

  • Take drawing equipment with you so your child can draw their favourite sights. This will prime them to look out for something new each time they go out, so even the smallest of outdoor spaces becomes increasingly interesting.

  • Offer your child basic tools to promote discovery, such as a magnifying glass, a trowel and a jar to keep their findings.

  • Provide your child with a box or area where they can display things they find on their adventures, such as conkers, colourful stones and interesting leaves. Showing an interest in what they have discovered will encourage them to continue their outdoor play.

  • If you live in a house, ensure your garden is child friendly. This includes removing poisonous plants and dangerous objects, and adding fun items for them to utilise during play. Providing items that can be found in nature, such as stones and sticks, will encourage their creativity and won't cost you a penny.

  • When the weather is fine, children can also take their homework out into the garden, so they can continue to benefit from fresh air and sunshine.

  • Your child is more likely to spend time outside if they see you doing so. Simply walking to the shops instead of driving will help to encourage your child to spend more time outdoors. Pointing out the interesting shape of a tree or the length of your shadow will open your child's mind to the wonders of the natural world, and there is a chance it will develop your interest in nature too!

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