As a parent, your child’s mental health is a top concern. Making sure that their self-esteem, anxiety levels, and overall wellbeing are all in a good place is critical to setting your child up for success throughout their lives. This is why developing mental health awareness and techniques and activities to promote their emotional health is a must from the start.
Even if your child is currently facing some of their own mental health struggles — whether they’re experiencing the effects of loneliness, bullying, rejection, or are still learning to love themselves — there are ways you can help them build confidence and manage their emotions.
Amanda Lowell, PhD, associate research scientist, licensed clinical psychologist, and mental health professional at the Yale Child Study Center, shares some of the best mental health activities that you can do as a family to ensure that your child has a strong foundation to meet any challenge head-on.
Identify Emotions and Express Them
“It is important for children to develop an emotional vocabulary — the earlier the better,” says Lowell. “Having words for feelings helps children express themselves in healthy and adaptive ways and prevents them from resorting to using challenging behavior to communicate their needs.”
A fun way to improve a child’s emotional health and help them identify and express their feelings in a way that they can understand is to create a feelings board.
“Have a poster or piece of paper with several faces making different emotional expressions (for toddlers and preschoolers, four emotions is plenty; the older the child, the more emotions can be added),” suggests Lowell. “Each morning and evening, check in with your child and point to or talk about which feeling you are each having and why. Talk about how your feelings may have stayed the same or changed over the course of the day. Don’t forget to talk about your own feelings too, so you serve as a model for your child.”
Reading together is a wonderful way to bond and create a safe space for your child to relax and share their feelings. It’s also a great opportunity to show them, through their favorite characters, that they’re not alone in their emotions.
The Feelings Book has bold illustrations of children expressing their emotions. With this book, your child can learn how to identify different moods and express their own emotions.
“I love this book, which helps young children develop a solid vocabulary for feelings early in life,” says Lowell.
Meanwhile, I Want to be Mad for a While sends the gentle message to children that they are allowed to feel their bigger feelings when they crop up and that they can take some alone time for these emotions to pass.
“It validates that it is OK for children to feel whatever they feel, and that feelings come and go eventually,” says Lowell.
Zen Pig: The Art of Gratitude is another great title that teaches children gratitude, compassion, and mindfulness through relatable peaceful artwork.
Speaking of gratitude, incorporating a daily practice of what you’re thankful for will do wonders for your child’s mood. It may also help ease symptoms of depression and reduce stress. Developing an awareness of all the good things — even the smallest ones — will help your child feel better whenever they need a little perspective.
“Talk about what each of you are grateful for today — at dinner or on the way home from school,” says Lowell. “It can be very simple, like being grateful for having your favorite school lunch in the cafeteria, or it can be more exciting, like a visit with grandma.”
This daily practice can be done at any time and be made into anything you’d like! Whether it’s a longer discussion about what you’re each grateful for or sharing a quick tidbit about your day on the car ride home, practicing gratitude has many benefits for your child’s mental health.
“Gratitude may help children develop a positive attitude about the immaterial things they have, and may help children develop an abundance mindset that may help prevent feelings of depression,” says Lowell.
Have Fun With Hobbies
Encouraging your child to make time for their favorite hobbies is one of the best ways to teach about self-care and stress management. It’s especially helpful for them when making sense of bigger emotions, like anxiety and anger.
Whether it’s exercising, journaling, being out in nature, gardening with you, or building things, hobbies are a wonderful way to teach your child how to stay present in the moment and receive joy from the activities they love.
Practice Mindfulness and Mental Health Awareness
Being present is the core of a mindfulness practice, which greatly helps alleviate stress and anxiety. Utilizing body scans (checking in with how each part of your body is feeling from head to toe while relaxed), deep breathing exercises, and gentle movement can help stabilize your heart rate and ease uncomfortable feelings.
Try these mindfulness exercises with your child when things are calm and tell them that they can lean into these techniques when they need them the most.
“It’s best to do these activities when children are calm and regulated,” says Lowell. “If they build these skills when they are feeling okay, the more likely they will be to come back to them when they’re not feeling okay. If we introduce these activities when they are dysregulated or upset already, they won’t be able to focus and it may feel more frustrating to them.”