Originally posted in Psychology Today by Constance Scharff, Ph.D. on June 13, 2022
Like adults, children can develop a wide array of mental health issues. What if, instead of waiting for mental health problems to develop and then treating the symptoms, we taught children how to maintain mental well-being and proactively care for their mental health? Mental illness would still develop in some individuals, but the prevalence and severity may diminish in the overall population.
Following are three activities or experiences that children can be exposed to or taught to improve their mental well-being.
There’s substantial data suggesting that meditation improves mental health in adults. Studies in children indicate similar positive results. Children who learn to meditate have better emotional regulation than nonmeditators; they are able to deal with difficult emotions in more positive ways than children who do not meditate.
Children who meditate are also less likely to self-harm or have suicidal ideation than their nonmeditating peers. Overall, meditation allows children to face difficult situations with greater calm and more easily deal with emotional volatility than those who do not meditate. Additionally, creating what may become a lifelong meditation practice could have significant positive health benefits over the course of a child’s life.
Unstructured Play Outdoors with Opportunities for Physical Activity
Play has changed in important ways over the last few decades. Children spend more time playing alone or on screens than they did in the past, and this can cause challenges to mental health later in their development. This is a trend parents can choose to change.
Playing outside has become a lost source of mental well-being for many children. Indoor play has become the norm for a lot children. Studies show that North American and European children play significantly less outdoors than their parents did. Yet outdoor play, especially unstructured outdoor play, which includes physical activity, has important benefits. Unstructured outdoor play with other children teaches kids how to work together, engages their curiosity, sometimes provides opportunities for problem solving, increases independence, improves communication with peers, and is just plain fun!
Giving children opportunities to play outdoors daily, especially with friends, could be an important way to build support, community, and skills children will need to deal with mental health issues throughout life. Additionally, the physical activity that’s typically part of outdoor play promotes healthy development and enjoyment of healthful lifestyle practices.
Allow for Independence and Boredom
Giving children opportunities to self-direct their play—whether that’s building a fort in the living room out of blankets and pillows, riding bikes in the neighborhood, or exploring a park or woodland area—engages creativity and problem solving. Boredom, when they encounter it, serves a purpose. It forces the child to be imaginative,—if the parent doesn’t immediately provide instant entertainment, which is often a screen.
Allowing children to feel bored also gives them the opportunity to learn about themselves, what makes them feel good and what soothes. They also experience age-appropriate independence.
If they are playing with others, they have opportunities to learn to communicate and solve disagreements. These are important life skills. Later in life, when the individual experiences depression, anxiety, or challenging emotions, they will have a set of tools to self-soothe and begin to work through their problems.
These three tips for developing good mental hygiene and well-being practices in children will not prevent all forms of mental illness, but they will help children develop skills and tools to calm and find solutions for some of life’s expected emotional and psychological challenges. When coupled with open communication between parents and children, these activities can go a long way toward improving our youth’s mental well-being.