Childhood experiences affect both mental and physical health for the rest of our lives. That’s why it is so important to give children a sound foundation for good mental health from the moment they are born.

Mental and physical health affect each other in strong and sometimes invisible ways. For example, eating a poor diet can increase the risk of depression. Physical abuse can set a child on the path to alcohol or drug abuse as a teenager. Sexual abuse increases the chance of attempting suicide. A healthy mind and body are equally important for good overall health. These two aspects of our lives cannot be separated.

Prevent mental illness

Mental problems are very common, but most are treatable. #MentalHealthMonth Preventing mental illness or mental problems is much easier, less expensive and more effective than trying to treat a problem once it’s established. Prevention starts with noticing if a child’s behavior suddenly changes or doesn’t seem normal. Prevention is also increased with access to health care. Health screenings can find physical problems before they can cause mental health problems.

Prevention also means stopping or mitigating the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs include all types of stressful events during childhood, such as witnessing domestic violence, having a mentally ill family member, an absent or incarcerated parent, experiencing physical or sexual abuse, drug or alcohol abuse in the home, or the death of a parent or sibling. Visit this website for more about ACEs.

Resilience matters

We cannot protect our children from every hard knock that life throws at them. That would not be healthy either, because we often grow and become stronger by surviving challenges and adversity. The trait that ultimately protects us from life’s traumas is resilience. Resilience is the ability to adapt well to trauma, tragedy, threats, uncertainty, anxiety, extreme stress and other problems. A resilient child believes: “I am not my mistakes, I can try again, things will get better and I am not alone.”

The American Psychological Association recommends these steps to build resilience in children:

  • Teach them how to make friends so they have human connections and a support system throughout their lives. Encourage them to be a friend to have a friend, including the ability to feel another person’s pain. Friends provide support, positive feedback and help you find solutions to problems. Religion and spiritual connections can also be helpful.
  • Be sure every child has at least one person they can trust and can talk with about their problems. Children need to feel they can tell someone that they are scared, or being bullied or mistreated. They need to know that trusted person will take action to protect them from harm. Know the people in your child’s life – from extended-family members, friends and caregivers, to teachers, coaches, neighbors and other adults. If you or the child “just don’t feel right” about being around someone, then go with your gut and investigate how that person is interacting with your child.
  • Demonstrate how to help others to give children a sense of personal empowerment, self-confidence and accomplishment. Children often feel helpless, especially during a traumatic event. Helping around the house, helping a neighbor or enjoying volunteer opportunities as a family can strengthen resilience.
  • Maintain a daily routine. This gives children structure, boundaries and comfort because they know what to expect. Uncertainty can be very stressful.
  • Take regular breaks from worry by being sure children have unstructured time to forget about worry and stress. Exercise and play are great ways to get a break from worry.
  • Teach self-care by making time to cook and eat a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, rest and sleep. Self-care is most effectively taught by example. Don’t overschedule a child’s activities so there’s no time to relax and have fun.
  • Set goals and move toward them one step at a time to help a child focus on what he or she has accomplished. It helps a child feel self-confident and capable of rising above life’s problems. Younger children may need help breaking down their goals into smaller, achievable steps. Acknowledging their achievements is a healthy way to give praise and help them understand how to reach larger, long-term goals.
  • Build children’s self-esteem and help them feel positive about themselves, including the ability to laugh at one’s self, and trusting oneself to solve problems and make good decisions. Help the child remember ways he or she successfully handled hardships in the past. Explain that overcoming past problems builds strength to handle future challenges. Connect their individual accomplishments to the wellbeing of a larger group they belong to, such as their school classes or sports team.
  • Teach children to keep things in perspective – especially problems or situations that can seem endless to a child. Teach children to be hopeful by setting a hopeful example yourself. Believing there is a future beyond the current bad situation and that the future can be good are powerful lessons. Thinking positively means understanding that setbacks are temporary, and you have the skills and abilities to overcome the challenges. It’s called optimism or being positive and it lets a child see the good things in life and keep going even in hard times.
  • Gain self-knowledge through enduring tough times. It is often through hard times that children learn the most about themselves and their abilities to survive. Ask them to remember a tough time when they discovered how strong they could be.
  • Teach children that change is part of life. Explain that they are in control of their attitude toward change and it can be positive or negative – it’s their decision. Change is scary for everyone. Take control by setting new goals to replace goals that are no longer relevant or attainable. Children who feel empowered to find solutions are better able to cope with all kinds of problems.
  • Pay special attention to very young children during traumatic or frightening events. They absorb more than we realize and can feel fear and helplessness. They may express it by being extra clingy and needing more hugs and assurance. They may adopt bad habits they had outgrown such as thumb sucking or bed wetting. Give them more attention during these times and use your family and/or friends to wrap them in closeness. Frequently assure them with direct statements that they are not alone and that you will protect them. Maintain their normal routine during times of stress or change.
  • Get regular exercise because it is crucial for children’s mental and physical health. Inactive people have a higher risk for health problems and poorer brain health. Physical activity increases a variety of substances that are important to brain function. They (endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and GABA) can help reduce anxiety, depression; control the body’s reward-response system that is heavily involved with addictions; reduce the risk of schizophrenia and psychosis; and improve mood disorders and PTSD.

If your child seems overwhelmed and unable to benefit from the above tips, you may want to consider a counselor, psychologist or other mental health professional to provide guidance. Ask your doctor or a school counselor for a referral.

Making better choices

A healthy lifestyle helps prevent mental illness or stops it from getting worse. Every choice we make about our physical health has an impact on our mental health.

Make small changes to improve your daily choices about food, exercise, sleep and stress reduction – small changes can create large gains in overall fitness.

  • Food – When choosing your family’s food and beverages, make every bite count toward improving health and preventing illness. Recent research has documented the vital connection between our gut and brain. This means that what we eat and our digestive system are directly related to our mental health. People who eat a diet high in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans and lentils, fish and unsaturated fats (olive oil is a good one) are 35-80 percent less likely to develop depression than those who eat less of these foods. If you are used to eating a lot of highly processed, fried and sugary foods, start slowly to eat less of them and eat them less frequently. Changing food and beverage habits takes time. Concentrate on eating more foods that pack a power nutritional punch. A healthy diet is very important for pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant. The children of mothers who eat highly processed, fried and sugary foods during pregnancy have more emotional problems in childhood. If children eat the same poor diet during their first years of life, they will also have more emotional problems.
  • Exercise – Physical activity that gets you and your children’s heart pumping and breathing a little faster should be part of every day. Doing something physical together adds the vital human connection. Keep it simple and keep it fun. Choose activities you enjoy and you’re likely to stick with – dancing, a walk after dinner, playing catch in the back yard. The recommended 30 to 45 minutes most days of the week can be broken into two or three, 10-15-minute periods. Aim for a minimum of an hour and a half every week. Here are the benefits: lower risk of depression, panic disorder and phobias (extreme fears), and lower levels of mood disorders and substance abuse. Regular exercise has the same beneficial effects as cognitive behavioral therapy for people with severe anxiety.
  • Sleep – Resting during the day is important for pre-school children. Sleep is fundamental to a healthy mind and body throughout life. Sleep plays a key role in our moods, ability to learn, and health of our immune system and metabolism. It also helps brain cells clear away toxins. Sleep problems affect up to 80 percent of people under the care of a mental health professional, compared to less than 18 percent in the general population. Poor quality sleep increases the risk of developing manic episodes, psychosis, paranoia, anxiety and depression. Mental Health America says the amount of sleep you need depends on your age:
    • 0-11 months = 12-17 hours
    • 1-5 years = 10-14 hours
    • 6-13 years = 9-11 hours
    • 14-17 years = 8-10 hours
    • 18-64 years = 7-9 hours
    • 65+ years = 7-8 hours

   Tips for good sleep:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends
  • Get outside during the day to maintain your body’s sleep-wake cycle; the earlier in the day the better
  • Don’t drink caffeine (coffee, tea, dark soft drinks and energy drinks) within 6-8 hours of bedtime; keep caffeine out of a child’s diet
  • Don’t allow pets in bedrooms
  • At night, keep bedrooms dark, quiet, cool and totally free of cell phones, TVs, computer screens, even lighted alarm clocks
  • Don’t smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol before bed – they interfere with the most valuable, deep-sleep cycles
  • If you do not fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something calming until you feel sleepy
  • Stress – Everyone has stress and everyone’s body reacts negatively to stress. The body can return to normal after stress is released. But, when you or your child is constantly reacting to stressful situations (chronic stress), your immune system causes dangerous inflammation that doesn’t go away. It can cause a variety of problems including muscle aches, stomach pain, heartburn, skin problems, diarrhea or constipation, weight gain/loss and irregular or painful periods for women. Try these tips to improve your ability to reduce stress. Most of these tips also work well for children.
    • Be realistic about what you can accomplish each day and in how many special activities or lessons your child needs to be involved
    • Stop expecting perfection from yourself or family members; do “what’s important now” (WIN) and don’t hesitate to ask for help
    • Give yourself time (20 min.) each day to reflect, pray, meditate, completely relax; you’ll be amazed at the results
    • Avoid multi-tasking because studies show it does not save time, you make more mistakes and you become stressed more quickly
    • Make a daily list of the things you and your family need to accomplish; delegate tasks to others; don’t overschedule
    • Get some exercise every day, especially after a stressful event and try to exercise outside
    • Develop a hobby or return to one you enjoyed as a child; introduce your children to hobbies you enjoyed at their age; find options to computer- or video-games
    • Talk to friends for a sympathetic ear about your “bad” day, but limit the complaining and ask them for advice; offer some of your own about their problems
    • Embrace compromise – at work, with neighbors and family – you’ll find that when you try to accommodate others’ needs, they’ll often meet you half way
    • Stop self-criticism and limit your criticism of others, especially children

For more information

Visit www.mhascreening.org to check mental health symptoms. You will receive customized information for you and help finding tools and resources. It is free, confidential and you don’t have to give your name.

If you like a challenge, Mental Health America is offering daily challenges during May. Visit their website to see posts of small daily changes that can improve your mental health. Visit www.bit.ly/MHAchallenge