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5 Ways Parents Can Encourage Emotional and Mental Health in their Children

Here's how to help kids manage anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Photo: Shutterstock

No matter which side of the aisle you are on, I think everyone agrees that our country is facing a mental health crisis. And it’s not just adults who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Our children—the most vulnerable among us—are not equipped to recognize these feelings or how to deal with them. What would it take to weave mental health topics into the tapestry of education, like taking moments during the day in the classroom to teach and practice self-regulation exercises? This could look like many things: connecting with nature, painting, or journaling, singing, breathwork, meditation, self-massage, contemplation, or tai chi. Even if one teacher started or finished the day giving kids the opportunity to connect with themselves, that would be a good start. But this is not always an option for our overstressed teachers and school systems. To help fill that gap, here are five ways parents can encourage emotional and mental health in their children:

  1. Model how to self-regulate. 

There is one important factor in parenting that is rarely talked about: the importance of having a healthy and regulated nervous system. As adults, we need to work on self-regulation, because our children’s nervous systems mirror our nervous systems. Co-regulation is the interactive process of adults providing warm and supportive relationships with children, demonstrating self-regulation through modeling and feedback, and offering an overall supportive environment. 

When I feel chaotic, rushed, frustrated, or generally fed up, I try to take a moment to calm my nervous system. The simplest techniques for on-the-go are square breathing, humming, or singing, and practicing self-compassion. 

If you’re having a hard time emotionally, it can really help your children to understand that it is not personal. “I’m grumpy because I’m having trouble regulating my nervous system, and it’s my problem, not yours. I am sorry that I’m snapping at you. You don’t deserve that. You deserve love and kindness.” 

It’s also a great time to model self-regulation techniques. “To calm down, I’m going to take some even breaths and put my hand over my heart to feel my heartbeat. Do you want to do it with me?” You can then model different types of breathing with them. My favorite is square breathing because it’s the easiest for kids. You count four breaths in, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold for four. You can keep it lighthearted and laugh together afterwards, hum or sing, move around, or tell some jokes. Some hearty big belly laughs are just what the doctor ordered, and they are very regulating! 

2. Spend time outdoors or find ways to connect with nature. 

If you can take a walk, do some gardening together, swim, feel dirt under your bare feet, then definitely do those things every day. But, if you live in a city, this can be more difficult. When I lived in New York City, I had to listen to recordings of nature sounds. We would bird-watch from the window, and we had a small balcony where I would garden with my son. The act of tending to our little potted plants connected him with nature, and to this day he loves to garden. When he was a toddler, he would literally stop to smell the flowers, and sometimes they would have a little chat.

3. Talk to your children, ask questions, and listen.

You can learn so much by asking your children questions. Talk about their experiences at school and with their peers. Start early on by asking them to name their emotions, and if they are unsure, you can give them some options. If they’re younger, such as toddler age, “happy, sad, angry, nervous, and uncertain” are sufficient, but as they mature, you’ll want to add more complex emotions. Having an emotional vocabulary is important, it helps children to become self-aware and to regulate their emotions. Use social emotional conversations to create a safe and healthy connection with your children, so they always know they have somewhere to turn. Creating a caring and non-judgmental space will help you to know when issues might be brewing.

4. Limit time on devices. 

You can use an app such as Bark, to limit screen time and to monitor content. When your children get to middle school, you might want to talk to them about why monitoring their media accounts is important—it’s not about invading privacy, it’s about keeping them safe and healthy!

5. Be kind to yourself. Love yourself. Forgive yourself. 

Inspire your kids to do the same. Building their confidence and self-esteem is at the core of parenting. Practice self-forgiveness. If your children see you forgiving yourself for mistakes you’ve made, they’re much likelier to not be so hard on themselves when they make mistakes. Use these moments to show your kids that making a mistake can be embarrassing and upsetting, but that it’s much braver to forgive yourself and move on. Show them that it is a healthy life-long skill! Practice self-love. Respecting yourself and treating yourself with kindness is important modeling.Be kind to yourself so you can be kind to others! Kindness really is contagious.

About The Author
Zoe Twitt

Zoe Twitt is a mom, creative, and author of the new children’s adventure series, Adelaide and The Cosmic Rescue Squad, a group of children’s picture books that help kids recognize and regulate their mental health when they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed.