Family hiking beside a body of water -- 2 Black parents with 2 kids riding piggyback

Written by Laura Pollard, LMSW

The start of the new year gives us all an opportunity to reflect back on everything we experienced and to look ahead to what’s coming in the future.

Even if you don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions, January is an excellent time to think about what you want for the new year and set goals to help turn those dreams into action. 

If you’re a parent trying to come up with valuable goals for your family this year, consider this one: Make mental health a family priority in 2024.

By prioritizing mental health, you can help your kids learn valuable skills that they will carry with them into adulthood. And when you care for your own mental wellbeing as a parent, everyone in your family benefits. 

In this article, we’ll break down 3 specific ways you can prioritize mental health with your children and teens this year:

1. Create Space for the Full Range of Human Emotions With Your Family

We all have the capacity to feel depressed, ashamed, overjoyed, anxious, and everything in between. But you may find that your kids need help learning how to name and manage those emotions when they arise. 

Take the time to have intentional conversations about navigating emotions, especially challenging ones. For many families, dinnertime is a great opportunity to have conversations like these.

Start by sharing vulnerably yourself first, so your kids know this is a safe space to talk openly. And when your kids open up about their own feelings, make sure to validate and normalize them without judgment. 

What does this look like for younger children? It could involve reading books and watching ws/movies that highlight different emotions and asking your children to reflect on when they have felt similar emotions. If there are emotions they don’t quite understand, break those down for them and give them practical examples of how emotions may show up in their life.

What does this look like for older children and teens? This may look like opening up about a tough experience you’ve had and talking about how you navigated through it. Allow room for questions to deepen your child’s understanding of choices that affected that situation and how you felt throughout the experience.

2. Create Consistent Structure and Routines

Routines, boundaries, and consistency can feel like safety to children, allowing them the security to grow into who they are. By creating an environment with this in mind, we can alleviate some of the stress children may feel while navigating through an ever-changing world. 

Children thrive within structure, but make sure you’re considering the unique needs of each child as you build that structure. Remember, children and adolescents alike go through most of their days being told what to do. Opening up conversation that allows compromise and curiosity, affording your child autonomy and power, can go a long way. 

What does this look like for younger children? This may look like giving them the choice of what color cup to use or allowing them to choose where they sit at the table during mealtimes. Another example could be to offer activities that have a beginning, middle, and end, setting clear expectations before beginning the activity.

What does this look like for older children and teens? This may look like setting clear rules through negotiating expectations and consequences together. For example, if an expectation is that homework will be completed nightly, you pose your child with the question, “when will you be setting aside time for homework – before or after we eat dinner?”

3. Prioritize Physical Health

Our physical and mental health have a complex and interactive relationship. By teaching your children to enjoy healthy habits like exercise and eating nutritiously, you can help them build positive relationships with their bodies and their attitude toward wellness.

Regular physical activity can also play an important part in regulating your child’s emotions, which will impact the way they engage with the world around them.

Studies have repeatedly shown that physical activity improves our mood and in turn can decrease negative emotions such as stress and anxiety. Physical activity can also open doors to social relationships, which are also important in your child’s overall development.

What does this look like for younger children? Arrange playdates that involve being outdoors or active. Encourage your child to explore various sports, focusing on having fun rather than being “good” or “the best”.

What does this look like for older children and teens? Engage in a physical activity together as a family, such as going for a bike ride or having a scavenger hunt in the park. Draw on your child’s preferences and challenge them to make a new game, then have them teach it to you. 

Sources:

  1. American Psychological Association. (2022, May). Resilience guide for parents and teachers. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience/guide-parents-teachers
  2. Buckwalter, K.D., Reed, D., & Sunshine, W. L. (2019). Raising the challenging child. Revell Publishing
  3. Borba, Michelle. (2021). Thrivers: The surprising reason some children struggle and others shine. G.P Putnam and Sons
  4. Scott, Jennifer. (2023, November 11). Natural Learning Concepts. https://nlconcepts.com/tips-to-prioritize-childrens-mental-health/

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