A look at external factors and children's mental health. How lifestyle and habits can affect a child and what we can do to help them live a better life.
If you're like most parents, I’m betting you’re pretty good at getting your kids to their check-ups regularly and making sure they get a balanced diet. Your knowledge of phonics and mathletics is probably superb! But what about your child's mental health? Do you factor this in as much as all the rest? And what do you know about external factors and children's mental health?
Deep down we all know our children’s mental wellbeing is just as important as their physical health. But maybe because it’s not always as apparent as physical health we sometimes don’t give it the attention it needs. However, the fact that mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people tells us we ought to start listening.
A passion for supporting mental health
Now, I’m not a mental health practitioner, I'm also not a psychologist. I'm simply someone who has a real passion for mental health and wellbeing. This passion was borne through struggles with my own mental health and it sparked our first book, a gratitude journal for adults and teens, The Positive Planner.
Finn and I quickly realised we weren’t the only ones whose mental health needed support, our children are important too. As their parents and caregivers, we need to support them on a daily basis through modelling healthy behaviour and helping them with their emotions. We created The Positive Doodle Diary with this in mind. We wanted our children to have a safe and fun space to explore their emotions and see how they connect with their body. Learning how to articulate their feelings from a young age is crucial to their development and will help them in their adult years.
What causes ill mental health in children?
There's a lot of research around the causes of mental health disorders and it suggests that it’s down to a combination of factors which include heredity, biology, psychological trauma and environmental stress.
One of the big problems with mental health in children is that it can be difficult to work out what’s going on sometimes. Kids experience so many different physical, mental and emotional changes as they grow. Learning how to cope with, adapt and relate to others and the world around them must be factored in too. On top of this, every child develops at a different pace so ‘normal’ has a broad range when it comes to behaviour and abilities.
External factors and children's mental health
Finn wrote in her blog How External Factors Influence Mental Health, that while there is a lot we can’t control when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing, there is a LOT that we can. It’s clear that we as parents and caregivers play an important role in supporting and encouraging good mental health habits and behaviours.
Here are just some of the external factors that affect our children’s mental health that we and, more importantly, they can influence.
#1 Our own mental health
I know! This is supposed to be a blog about our children, not us, but this is probably the most important external factor that will affect your child’s mental health. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so if you take care of your own mental health first, not only will you be modelling the habits that improve mental health, you'll also be creating a healthier environment for your child. Of course I get it, it’s hard to put yourself first when you’re looking after others. If you want some support on how to do this, take a look at my blog How To Take Care Of Your Mental Health Whilst Caring For Others.
#2 Being outdoors
I know how much better I’m feeling right now that the days are getting longer and warmer (anyone else had their first t-shirt day of the year already?). It’s obvious therefore that it's going to be the same for our children then, isn’t it?
Research by the Open University’s OPENspace Research Centre shows that spending time outdoors in nature increases life expectancy, improves wellbeing, reduces symptoms of depression and increases a child’s ability to function in school. How amazing is that?
Of course, the UK weather isn’t always helpful, but there’s a lot to be said for kids getting muddy and wet during play. And if it’s really miserable out, there are loads of ways you can bring the outdoors indoors! Let nature in with window-sill planting, bird watching and nature programmes on the box.
#3 Being Busy
The ‘Being Busy’ culture is huge in our society. We take pride in being busy. But is it really something we should be proud of? And should we inflict it on our children?
I know from bitter experience my kids HATE being dragged around when we’ve got lots to do. So I’ve started to slow everything down - including me! I have to be honest though, I haven’t found it easy. I feel guilty if there’s nothing planned for the kids. But free time is actually really exciting for a child’s development because it allows them to confront boredom. This is when their creativity gets a chance to flourish. It also gives them the space they need to self-regulate and process what’s going on in their lives.
Control is such a small word but what comes with it is SO big. You’ll find The Circle of Control exercise in our Positive Doodle Diary. The essence of it is that by focussing energy on the things they can control, children can reduce the anxiety around those things that they can’t.
Giving children control is both hugely empowering and liberating. Their lives are so often controlled by grown ups, so to allow them to make decisions can be totally mood boosting and a LOT of fun too!
Emma Scottchild, a friend of ours who wrote a book for parents who hate craft, has been talking about giving kids more control over on her Instagram account. She was inspired by the new Jennifer Garner film, Yes Day where a family turns their routine upside down when the parents can only say yes to their children for 24 hours. If you’re in need of a little nudge to be a little more of a YES person - and I think we could all do with that sometimes - go watch the film, it's brilliant! Why not have a Yes Day yourself - Emma’s Instagram post tells you how to best go about it as a family. Just don’t forget to tag us in your pics if you do with #WeAreThePositivePlanners.
I couldn’t write about mental health and wellbeing and not mention this one, could I? Finn and I have put gratitude at the forefront of all our books right from the very beginning. I’m utterly convinced that being grateful is THE way for us to refocus our mindset towards more positivity in life.
Gratitude helps kids feel good about what they already have in their lives. Our Positive Doodle Diary has a lovely exercise in it called The Happy Jar. Kids fill a jar with all the things that they’re grateful for and make them happy. You’ll find a similar exercise in our free download Mindful Activities for Kids - Primary Age in our Resource Library.
I TOTALLY get the need for screen time. Along with every other parent, I know screen time is the not-so-secret weapon in getting some peace and quiet. And there’s absolutely no shame in it! However, we do need to be aware of how we’re using it and the effect it’s having on our kids.
Screen time is exciting for children (and us too). This excitement triggers the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that makes us link screens with pleasure. When screen time stops, so does this dopamine release leading to some extreme behaviour in kids - my son included! Kids aren’t quite able to regulate their emotions and so negotiating screen time can leave everyone frazzled.
We need a balance here and I’m still working on this one. I’m learning to set boundaries in my own digital world and I even take a digital detox now and then. To ease things, why not introduce an exit strategy for when they’ve finished their screen time? A relaxing exercise such as colouring or doodling will allow them to reset and find some calm.
Self-care is a relatively new concept, even to us adults. It’s essential that we take care of ourselves whatever our age. Of course, it looks different for everybody and I like to use the idea of Goldilocks and three bears: You want the porridge to be just right, not too hot and not too cold. It’s the same with our children, we want them to have just the right feeling inside too. So while one child might need to burn loads of energy and really get that adrenaline out of their body, another will want quiet time and enjoy stretching or yoga. Others will prefer to draw or paint and get crafting to find their peace.
Experiment and help your child find what they need to have in their self-care toolbox. They could even make their own Self-Care Jar - write all the activities that make them feel good onto pieces of paper and put them in a jar. When they (or you) notice they need some self-care, take one out and do the activity that’s on the paper.
Finding patterns in our children’s mental health
You might have been surprised to see that there’s a lot we can be in control of when it comes to our children’s mental health. The key thing is to get to know patterns. One really clever way to learn about these is to track behaviour and mood. We have an excellent free download you can use for this in our Resource Library. Our Month of Mood + Habit Tracking pdf allows you to track what’s going on with your children and from this you can start to implement small changes where necessary.
Of course, we can’t solve every mental health problem by just looking at these external factors. It’s crucial to get expert help if you feel there's a need. Your doctor can be your first point of call, but we also have some excellent links to organisations and charities that can help and advise you on our Mental Health Links page.
Much love and positives vibes,