Tips for Parenting Healthy Habits in Kids with Mental Health Challenges
April Bowling, MA, ScD, Merrimack College, and James Slavet, PhD, Marblehead Family Therapy and Wellness
About one in every five US youth has a diagnosed mental health condition. Many more struggle with symptoms of anxiety or depression. Fortunately, research has shown that getting daily movement and enough sleep can meaningfully improve kids’ mental health.
Developing healthy sleep and exercise habits in children can be challenging. Parents are often pulled in many directions at once, splitting their focus and forcing them to prioritize the care they provide. Parenting kids with mental health challenges can be especially taxing, in this regard.
When parents have to “pick their battles,” they often report that improving physical activity and sleep habits just don’t make the cut. This partly arises out of the misconception that their children need to make huge, unrealistic changes for it to make a difference. In fact, small, manageable changes can help develop life-long healthy habits that can make mental health conditions much more manageable.
Tip #1: Start with what they already enjoy.
Yoga is not for everyone. Neither is running. And that’s ok! Regular, vigorous physical activity is the goal, whatever form it takes. Sometimes the best form of exercise is something we don’t think of as exercise at all.
For example, if your child is really into video games, have them try video games that require movement to play. There are free, fun options available for smartphones and tablets. For an added bonus, play the games together! Be creative and encourage your child to think less about “exercise” and more about getting more enjoyable movement.
Tip #2: Keep exercise short, fun, and frequent.
60 minutes of exercise each day is a common recommendation for kids. That isn’t always realistic. For kids with mental health conditions, it might be impossible.
Short bouts of light and moderate physical activity–including walking the dog, hiking, or riding a bike–also improve mood, focus, anxiety, depression, and sleep. Taking a 10-minute walk after school is a lot less daunting than running 3 miles. It’s also more likely to become a regular, healthy habit.
Tip #3: Make the connection between exercise, sleep, and mental health.
Help your child keep an easy log where they track exercise, sleep, and mood. This can help them connect healthy habits with feeling better, like realizing that they fall asleep easier on days that they get exercise.
Seeing healthy patterns grow helps build internal motivation to keep up the behavior change. Apps and devices like a FitBit can be helpful for some children. Several track mood as well as physical activity and sleep.
Tip #4: Take the angst out of imperfect sleep.
Help your child build good sleep habits instead of worrying about the amount or quality of sleep, which is largely outside your child’s control. Worry can make falling asleep very difficult, especially for children with a mental health condition that heightens anxiety. The more we worry about getting enough sleep, the more trouble we have falling asleep.
Try to support and reinforce your child’s efforts. Younger kids might like a sticker chart for following a bedtime routine, while teens might respond more to specific, consistent praise. But no matter what, don’t add to worry about how well or long they sleep. Make it about practicing healthy sleep habits.
Tip #5: Help your child create a realistic sleep routine.
Four things are essential for kids to get enough sleep: a good sleep environment, a healthy sleep routine, controlling caffeine, and exercise during the day. A good sleep environment means minimizing light and sound, keeping the room comfortably cool, and eliminating screens in the room while sleeping. A healthy sleep routine is short (10-20 minutes), relaxing and easy to follow, doesn’t include screens, and aims at the same bedtime every night.
An example sleep routine might be taking a warm shower, brushing teeth, reading for 10 minutes, and then turning off the light and taking three deep breaths. While teens love to sleep in on the weekends, a consistent waking time can also help them fall asleep more easily at night.
Many teens and pre-teens also claim to be night owls. In reality, they may be so tired that they’re having difficulty disengaging from social media, gaming, and texts at night.
Validate your child’s feelings that these activities and connections are important while encouraging small changes that show them that they can tune out without missing out. For example, if your teen normally starts their nighttime routine at midnight, encourage them to start it at 11:45pm and work towards an earlier bedtime over time.
Tip #6: Put these tips into action for yourself.
As parents, we often feel the need to focus on our children’s health before our own, particularly when parenting kids with mental health challenges. Starting with your own health habits will improve your mental and physical health and capacity to parent.
You’ll also role model being “healthy enough” for your child. Don’t try to achieve perfect exercise and sleep habits all at once. Taking small steps over time is how you build lasting change. This is essential to building healthy habits.
For even more realistic, research-based tips on parenting healthy habits in kids with mental health and neurodevelopmental challenges, listen to the authors’ podcast Healthy Enough.
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