Optimizing Children’s Mental Health

Millions of children in the U.S. and around the world are suffering mental distress. Why? The potential causes are many: trauma, bullying, nutritional deficiency, food insecurity, abilities that fall outside the “normal” spectrum, divorce, illness, societal pressures, discrimination — the list goes on.

We’ve created a world that is not good for children. A world where profits are more important than people. A world where success is measured by the size of our houses and the brands of our cars. A world where we think it’s okay for a five-year-old to sit in a classroom for much of the day and reading time takes precedence over play time.

If we really want to optimize children’s mental health — their well-being, we should work for social change. But this is a big task, and it takes time. Our children’s health and happiness can’t wait for an inevitable paradigm shift.

So what can we do in the meantime to promote well-being in our children?

Take Care of Physical Needs

We can support our children by making sure that their basic needs are met:

  • Natural movement. We know that exercise is important to take care of our bodies and to prevent diseases such as diabetes. Exercise is just as important for mental well-being. The brain is designed to grow when we move our bodies. Kids should have plenty of movement built naturally into their days. Physical education, recess, organized sports, and neighborhood games all provide space for movement.
  • Real food. We are what we eat. When we eat junk, our brains do not function optimally. Growing children are especially in need of nutritious, real food. Real food includes fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, fish, and meat. It’s important to note that we all have individual nutritional needs, so some experimentation is required to determine what works best for each child.
  • Sleep and rest. I cannot stress the importance of adequate sleep and rest for children’s mental well-being. Sleep deprivation may be confused with ADHD and is “an insult to a child’s developing body and mind,” according to Karen Bonuck, a professor of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Children respond well to bedtime routines and minimizing screen time before bedtime. Regular downtime is also important for the developing brain.
  • Nature time. This generation of children spends much less time in nature than previous generations and it is affecting our children’s ability to be well. Research shows that walking in nature prevents depression. Children love nature walk, bird watching, digging in the dirt, hunting mushrooms, and really any activity outside. While manicured parks are nice, it’s best if children have the opportunity to play in untouched nature.

Focus on Resilience

Resilience is the ability for a person — or a community — to bounce back in the face of adversity. In Sweden, resilient children are called “dandelion children,” thinking of a dandelion’s ability to thrive almost anywhere.

Children are born with a certain amount of resilience, but resilience can also be learned. This is good news, because resilience is a protective factor against the documented negative outcomes related to childhood trauma.

Here are a few ways to build individual resilience in children:

  • Treat children with respect .
  • Teach social and emotional skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making.
  • Validate children’s emotions.
  • Let children figure things out on their own.
  • Allow children to be active contributors in the household.
  • Provide space for children to daydream.

All children will eventually face a distressing event — the death of a pet or a grandparent, a move to a new town or school, the loss of a friendship, academic or social failure, the realization that our planet is under siege…

By building healthy, resilient children, this generation will have a better chance of coping with life — even when it takes a turn for the worse. This, along with working for social change is the path to optimizing children’s mental health for generations to come.