In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, Global Game Changers Children’s Education Initiative, Inc. (GGC), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization providing social-emotional learning (SEL) and character and leadership development curricula for pre-K through 5th grade students, has developed a tip sheet designed to help parents heighten their children’s awareness of their own mental health.
It is normal for children to feel a range of emotions in response to the events of their lives. These emotions might include anxiety, frustration, sadness, and feeling overwhelmed. It’s essential that parents help children identify these emotions from an early age. Questions such as “how are you feeling today?”, “how can you express how you feel safely?” and “how can we work to help you feel better/keep you feeling great?” are a great starting point.
Children of all ages can benefit when their families encourage these six practices:
1. Help kids identify and talk about their feelings.
The more able kids are to identify their feelings, the more easily they (and you!) can find strategies to deal with those feelings in a productive way. Most kids know happy, sad, and mad, but challenge them as they grow to build a wider feeling vocabulary. Instead of mad, is your child feeling hurt or frustrated or attacked? Instead of focusing on big feelings only, talk about them at other times, too.
2. Get active
To borrow a line from the movie Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make people happy!” Encourage your kids to find something active they enjoy, and do it regularly. Be sure to be open to the possibilities. You can get moving doing so many things – sports, dance, biking, hiking, gardening, bowling, or games. And you can do it outside of traditional settings, like a living room dance party, backyard baseball, or YouTube yoga.
3. Head outside
Getting outside and into nature has been found to improve memory, emotion management, happiness, and even one’s sense of meaning and purpose. One study found that children who lived in neighborhoods with more green space had fewer psychological and psychiatric disorders than those who did not. May is a great time to get outside in most parts of the country. Explore your local parks and playgrounds, or just take a walk around the block. If you have a fourth grader, you and your family can visit National Parks for free as part of the “Every Kid Outdoors” Program.
4. Sleep well
One study involving more than 10,000 children aged 9 to 11 found that those who routinely got less than 7 hours of sleep saw rates of behavioral problems rise 53 percent. Children aged 6-12 should be getting 8 to 12 hours of sleep a night. In order to set yourself up for success, work backward. Identify when your kids need to fall asleep in order to get their recommended amount. Nobody likes to fight about going to bed, so design strategies and routines ― reading, yoga, bathtime, meditation ― that get your children ready to fall asleep before it’s time to close their eyes.
5. Model good mental health practices
We know our kids are watching and listening, so use that as motivation to model good mental health practices. Talk about your own feelings, even bad ones, when it is appropriate: “I feel frustrated when a driver cuts me off in traffic,” for example. Visit a counselor or therapist when needed. Share how you get active, and give your children a chance to try it with you. Engage in positive self-talk, such as “I didn’t get it this time, but I’ll get it next time!” Your strategies will rub off on your kids, and your own mental health will benefit.
6. Give back to others
Volunteering can decrease stress, anxiety, and depression, and release the brain chemical dopamine. It can be difficult to find opportunities for younger kids, so get creative. Visit a park and pick up trash. Go through old toys and clothes and give some away. Reach out to a local homeless advocacy organization to see what donations they will accept. Make art for a local retirement community or nursing home. Explore what causes are near and dear to your child’s heart and foster their love of service. Other examples of how to give back can be found at globalgamechangers.org.
As part of its K-5 curriculum, GGC also offers a comprehensive booklet detailing how children can process emotions in constructive ways. Featuring actionable advice in terms children can understand, the booklet is one of the many free downloads ― including tips, printable activity pages, posters, video craft tutorials, and more ― available to teachers through the GGC website.