Every child needs a toolkit for positive mental health. What's in it?
By Linda Stade
Every day, we send our kids off to school with a backpack full of all they need for the day. There will be books, possibly a device for schoolwork, and food or money for the canteen. Some days, there may also be special clothes for sport or after-school activities. Our children leave home seemingly ready to face the day.
All this equipment is important. However, it is nowhere near as important as the invisible toolkit our kids need to carry into school and life beyond school. They need a positive mental health toolkit and parents have the privilege of helping kids pack that toolkit over the course of their development.
Why is a mental health toolkit so important?
In Australia, research confirms 75% of mental health issues begin before the age of 25. More surprisingly, 50% begin before the age of 14. These facts are confronting but the intention here is not to scare parents. This knowledge should mobilise us into action.
By ensuring our kids are developing a well-equipped mental health toolkit, we can support them in building the resilience they need when facing the inevitable challenges life presents.
What belongs in your child’s mental health toolkit?
Trusted adults who listen
One of the greatest protective factors a child can have against poor mental health is at least one adult who is trustworthy, deeply present, listening, and who believes in them. Whether you are a parent or a trusted adult outside of the child’s home, like a teacher, a family friend, or an extended relative, you have the potential to make a significant difference.
Yes, experts have been banging on about the benefits of exercise for mental health forever… with good reason! Exercise releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins and serotonin. They can improve mood and decrease anxiety and depression.
Exercise improves self-esteem which is vital during the vulnerable years of adolescence. It also has the potential to connect kids with different groups of people which decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation.
A balanced diet
Our kids’ diet is everything they put into their bodies. It is the food they eat, the television they watch, the social media they absorb, and the conversations they have. The health of our kids’ bodies and minds relies on balance in all things.
Wide emotional vocabulary
Lourdes Hill College clinical psychologist, Kristina Morgan says, “Being a human means we ALL have the full range of emotion. No one is happy all the time. No one is nice all the time. We all get sad, disappointed, hurt, and angry. The broader the emotional language you use with kids, the more space you can provide to express emotions effectively.”
Freedom to express emotion
Children who live in a home where all emotions are allowed and valued are more likely to express and process their emotions in a healthy way. Kristina says, “A child needs the opportunity to practise how to live with and respond to, their entire range of human emotion while they have you as their safety net. That way they can learn to respond in a way that’s healthy for themselves, and respectful of others.” All emotions are acceptable, all behaviours are not, and our kids need the opportunity to recognise that difference.
Emotional regulation strategies
Emotional regulation is the process of recognising, labelling, and then soothing emotions. Some self-regulation occurs naturally. We might sigh more when upset as it allows more oxygen which is calming. Crying is another natural self-regulation tool; it is an emotional release. Other regulation strategies can be learnt. For example, exercise, enjoying music, focusing on the mind-body connection, or connecting with people they love and trust. Working with you, kids will be able to identify what works for them.
Gratitude is proven to change the way we mentally and emotionally approach life. Noticing the positive things that are in each day, even on the worst days, buffers your child against the times that are uncomfortable and difficult.
Humans have a natural negativity bias which was designed to keep us safe in our early evolution. It paid to be suspicious when there were sabretooth tigers wandering around! However, today we need to challenge our automatic negative filter and look for the good. Teach kids to acknowledge the good in their life by starting and ending every day with an acknowledgment of at least three things for which they are grateful.
Mindfulness is the process of consciously listening to your thoughts and being aware of which ones are useful and which ones aren’t. Mindfulness practices keep the mind in the present and stop us from worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. Meditation, yoga, journaling, body scanning, colouring, and breathing exercises are all useful. There are also excellent apps like Smiling Mind.
An action we can take immediately to improve the mental health of young people is to ensure they get enough sleep. Our kids need undisturbed, restorative sleep every night to cope with the ups and downs of their days. It’s a no-brainer, yet large numbers of Australian kids are not even getting the minimum for mental health, growth, learning, and development. As a guide, a primary school student needs between 9 and 11 hours of sleep, and a secondary school student needs between 8 and 10 hours.
Regular contact with nature
Regular time in nature has been shown to evoke positive emotions as well as developing individual resilience. It can also be useful as a way of counteracting some of the symptoms of mental ill-health. Both green spaces and aquatic spaces produce wellbeing benefits. More remote and biodiverse spaces have a greater impact, but even your local parks and trees can lead to positive outcomes.
Good friends, who respect boundaries and behave in a supportive way, provide connection and companionship. They are strong protective forces in our young peoples’ lives. There is no magic number of friends that a child needs. Some may need very few friends, while others will need many.
Access to professionals
It’s 2021 and so hopefully we are past the belief that talking to a good friend is just as good as seeing a psychologist. It isn’t. A psychologist or other mental health professional has the training, skills, and experience to help our kids reflect, explore, come to realisations, and then employ strategies for growth. They are also able to recognise mental health disorders that require more specialised treatment. Please normalise seeing psychologists. There should be pride in that kind of self-care.
Often kids don’t have the skills or confidence to arrange to see a health professional, but they do know how to use a phone. There are helplines for kids manned by trained staff who can listen and guide. EVERY child should have these numbers in their phone’s contact list. Have that conversation and help them enter these numbers today.
They should also bookmark these websites:
eheadspace to chat online
ReachOut.com (youth mental health service) Visit the website for info or use the online forum
A sense of meaning and purpose
When our kids have a sense of meaning and purpose, spiritual or otherwise, they feel grounded and as though they are part of something bigger than themselves. Research shows that this sense of meaning can be correlated with greater levels of positive mental health. At Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane, our Wellbeing Framework addresses this need under Spirituality, Meaning and Purpose, and Goals.
If parents, and all significant adults, truly recognised their impact on children’s emotional development, we would be humbled, honoured, and deeply cognisant of our responsibilities. We can help kids face the world with a mental health toolkit that will give them the best possible chance of living their best lives.
We have created a Mental Health Toolkit poster for your home or classroom.
You can download it here.