5 Effective Ways to Foster Good Mental Health in Children
Mental health isn’t just an important consideration for adults who deal with serious day-to-day challenges and trauma. Mental health challenges can affect people of all ages, including children, who have been experiencing depression, anxiety, and other issues at an increasing rate since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020 the CDC reported that emergency room visits for mental health-related reasons for children ages 5–11 increased by 24 percent year over year. Similarly, a study published in Lancet Psychiatry in 2023 analyzed 42 studies worldwide and found a 22 percent increase in emergency room visits for children and adolescents for attempted suicide from the start of the pandemic until July 2021.
“During the pandemic, a lot of their protective factors were challenged; so for example we know that screen time increased, physical activity decreased, a lot of them experienced school closures, there was a lot of death and illness around them, so the stress of the pandemic in terms of broader strokes, they were exposed to more family violence,” explained study co-author Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt.
Psychologists have long considered too much screen time and isolation risk factors for poor cognitive development and mental health. However, storytelling, which is tied to increased empathy, self-esteem, and memory retention, is one of the many powerful tools that can help improve youth mental health. Nonprofits like Every 1 Voice Matters utilize storytelling to help children develop effective mental health coping strategies.
The following is a closer look at how creative expression and other activities can help children manage mental health issues.
1. Expressing Themselves Creatively
Whether through music, drawing, coloring, and creating stories, the act of creative expression is associated with several mental health benefits. Studies have shown that simply listening to music can help ease anxiety, improve sleep quality and memory, and lower high blood pressure. Writing music can also serve as an outlet for youth to explore their complex feelings and find tranquility. Singer Billie Eilish, for instance, wrote “Everything I Wanted” to navigate her symptoms of depression but has since said the song has transformed into more of a homage to her brother and how he has supported her through difficult times.
Adult coloring books have experienced a rise in popularity during the last decade because they prompt people to stop focusing on negative or stressful thoughts and focus on a singular task. Coloring books can have the same positive effect on children, but they simultaneously help them develop motor skills and creativity. Coloring and drawing, along with other artistic pursuits, can help both children and adults alleviate stress and anxiety.
2. Exercising and Being Active
While too much screen time can have a negative impact on youth mental health, spending plenty of time outdoors and being active can have benefits that last a lifetime. Researchers for a 2022 review of studies published in JAMA Psychiatry found that even 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week can reduce adults’ depression risk by nearly 20 percent.
Just by being outside, children can glean positive benefits such as lower levels of stress, reduced symptoms of ADHD, increased focus, and improved motor development. In a 2010 report, the National Wildlife Federation stated that being present in nature can reduce stress levels in children in mere minutes. Activities like sports or friendly games are great ways to encourage kids to get outdoors and be active.
3. Bonding with Animals
Spending time with pets has been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression in children. A 2015 study concluded that children with a dog at home were less anxious than their peers without pets. Several other dog-related activities can help youth become more resilient and improve mental health. Taking a dog to a dog park is a great way for older children to improve their social skills and even expand their social circle by communicating with other pet lovers. Family dog walks can also get children to spend more time outside and are a good opportunity for parents to bond with their kids.
4. Trying Mindfulness Activities
Activities like yoga provide physical benefits to children but can also help them understand the importance of mindfulness, which, according to research, can improve focus in youth with ADHD, boost social skills, mitigate the impact of bullying, and improve overall wellbeing. Children don’t necessarily need to do lengthy yoga sessions either. They can instead practice mindful poses, like the Superman or Wonder Woman, both of which involve standing tall while either stretching their arms to the sky or placing their hands on their hips.
5. Making a Self-Care Checklist
Self-care fundamentals, including proper nutrition, sleep, and physical activity, are major mental health factors for children. However, these essential needs can sometimes be neglected due to family conflict, schoolwork, and other stressors. In creating a self-care checklist, kids can have a visual guideline of the essential things they need to do while balancing other responsibilities. Self-care checklist items might include spending time outside, eating a nutritious breakfast, or doing something kind for others.