What is self-care? The definition varies depending on who you’re asking, but essentially it means taking care of yourself physically and mentally. In recent years the concept of mental health has come to the forefront of societal conversation, so much so that May has been designated Mental Health Awareness Month. Dedicating a month to awareness and support for those living with mental illness is a great step in the right direction, still, it is not enough. The stigma associated with mental health can still halt conversation and make people feel embarrassed for talking about their struggle.
How prevalent is mental illness? Over 45 million adults live with mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14. While these numbers are alarming, they shed insight into where more work can be done. The fact that mental illness often begins in childhood emphasizes the critical need for social-emotional education (SEL) to begin at a young age. As early as February 2011 research cited in the publication Child Development shows that when children are taught emotional intelligence, stress management, self-compassion, and empathy (all aspects of self-care), they demonstrate significantly improved resilience, affecting social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and an academic performance change that reflected an 11‐percentile‐point gain in achievement. (https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x). “The findings add to the growing empirical evidence regarding the positive impact of SEL programs. Policy makers, educators, and the public can contribute to healthy development of children by supporting the incorporation of evidence‐based SEL programming into standard educational practice.” (Durlak, Weissberg) The positive impact imparted by the use of self-care skills carries on into adulthood and lays a foundation for not just happier adults, but also a healthier society.
Discuss and Educate
First things first, in order to have productive conversation and break stigma we must be better educated. What is mental health? This may seem like an obvious question, but ask yourself and ask your kids. You’ll be surprised by the different perspectives. By definition, mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health disorders are disturbingly common among children and adolescents and with the most familiar mental health issues being: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Anxiety, Depression, and Suicide.
Fortunately, many informative mental health materials can be found online. This is a great place to start to learn about mental-emotional health. Educate yourself first and then include the children in your life by modeling and sharing with them what you’ve learned and what you are doing as a result to better self-care mentally, emotionally and physically. Encourage them to be active, eat well, and talk about how they feel. Make sure they learn tools and techniques that support them in calming, managing, and focusing themselves in healthy ways when events in their life weigh so heavily that they, or you, fear they are tipping. Stress, fear, frustration, and the subsequent anger and anguish are real, regardless if from an outside perspective the emotions seem unwarranted. Get dug in, it’s important. Find out what your child’s school is doing to teach and support SEL. Organizations such as SEL4CA.org and CASEL.org can help you.
Starting a conversation with your kids about mental health is challenging, look for discussion guides, podcasts, and even comic books, that can give you questions to get the ball rolling, or at the least give you questions to ask your doctor about a child who may be at risk. These resources can also suggest activities that demonstrate to your child how their thoughts and emotions are linked and that can explain conditions in terms children will understand. Becoming more comfortable with these kinds of conversations will make kids and teens feel less isolated and will encourage them to share their true feelings.
Encourage Physical Activity
It’s widely known that exercise is good for your physical health, but it’s also one of the best ways to improve your mental health. It’s a great outlet to reduce stress, exude excess energy, and even give yourself a healthy sense of well-being. Those who exercise are more likely to feel more energetic throughout the day, get a better night’s rest, relax and be more positive. Exercise has been known to aid in the treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD and trauma.
The best physical activities are ones that include friends and family. Whether it’s taking the dog for a walk every day, joining a kickball league or swimming in the pool, any chance to get out and get moving will have significant health effects. When you cannot get outside, play-along videos are a fun and bonding way to exercise inside at home or at school. From the many exercise videos there are to choose from, the one for young children, ages 3-9 years that we want to highlight is the, Movement & Mindfulness Bundle from Move with Me Yoga Adventures. It has 9 yoga videos that combine acting out stories with movement and learning discrete, specific health & self-regulation skills that can be reinforced during your daily life through the use of physical flash cards. The skills taught are not just for kids, they can be used by adults and children alike.
Embrace the Arts
Having a creative outlet is another essential component of self- care. There are instances in which words do not suffice, or perhaps they’re too hard to say. Finding a creative way to express feelings is a healthy alternative to keeping them internalized. Painting, drawing, or coloring are great ways to depict feelings through colors and portraying scenes. Writing, playing, and listening to music is another outlet. Finding music that relates to the way you’re feeling can be a release of emotion. Music can also translate into a feeling of camaraderie. When people are expressing the same feelings you feel, you’re more likely to open up.
For you and your children’s mental health, it’s essential to stop the cycle of stress and the accompanying emotions of helplessness and anger. It is time to start prioritizing your well-being by taking time throughout the day to self-care. When you take the time to learn the skills you need, that intention and action translates to positive growth for your family as well. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
How you hold your parents matters. When you judge, disrespect, or reject one or both of them, you are doing the same to yourself. Since you are literally of them and from them, it’s vital to your well-being and inner peace to accept them as they are, even if only in your heart.
This truth was highlighted for me recently by my teacher, Mark Wolynn. He cited a Harvard Medical School study that showed surprising correlations between the quality of one’s parental relationships and the quality of one’s health later in life.
In the 1950s, researchers asked 21-year-old students to describe their relationship with their parents using the scale: “very close,” “warm and friendly,” “tolerant,” or “strained and cold.” Thirty-five years later, those same students, now 56 years-old, were asked about their health.
91% of participants who stated that their relationship with their mother was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, alcoholism, etc.
45% of participants who reported that their relationship with their mother was “warm and friendly” or “very close” had been diagnosed with a serious health challenge.
82% of participants who stated that their relationship with their father was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue.
50% of participants who stated that their relationship with their father was “warm and friendly” or “very close” had been diagnosed with a serious health challenge.
100% of participants who stated that their relationship with both parents was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue.
We all know from personal experience that our family relationships have a big impact on our childhood development. These statistics point to the fact that that impact actually lasts a lifetime. Implicit, as well, is the life enhancing value of compassionate completion with our parents at any age.
When I say compassionate completion, I mean that you realize that whatever you blame them for was not personal. You are able to see your parents as flawed, traumatized humans, like yourself, who did the best they could with what they received from their parents and life events. You accept that they cannot give what they didn’t get and that you got enough. You don’t try to change what was, you simply decide to change how you hold it. Your parents aren’t going to be any different, but when you change how you hold them, your relationship with them will too.
Maybe they are available and healthy enough for you, in person, to let them off the hook, thank them for all they did do for you, and enjoy a transformed relationship. Maybe they are passed, or mentally ill, or unsafe to be near physically and you can, in your own mind and heart, complete with them by understanding what they went through and why they behaved as they did. Changing your inner image of them, shifts how you hold them. Having compassion for what happened to them and caring about what they went through will enable you to acknowledge that what they did wasn’t about you, it was about them. When you no longer take what happened personally, you can leave their suffering with them and free yourself from perpetuating unhealthy and unloving dynamics.
I used to hold my mother as selfish and uncaring. Growing up, I could feel she was not seeing me. I took it personally and, as a result, judged and rejected her. We had a polite, superficial relationship at best. Then, through the Family Constellation work, I came to a new understanding of what was behind her behavior. Now, I see her as the one who cared the most. We share a sweet, warm, fun bond that feels like a miracle in my life.
My mother had an older sister who died the same day she was born. The death of their first child, after a seemingly normal, healthy pregnancy, was so painful for my grandparents that they never talked about nor told their later children of their older sibling. Because they couldn’t bear to be with the trauma of her passing, they also couldn’t look at and include her as part of the family. So, my mother looked instead, which is why she couldn’t see me. Understanding that my mother was unconsciously identified with her excluded sibling made so much of what I went through with her suddenly make sense. (Learn more about systemic dynamics and exclusion)
In changing how I hold my mother, I dramatically changed how I feel inside my own life. Opening to the bigger picture allowed me to open my heart to her. With that came a floodgate of love, growth, and healing for me in all my relationships.
Encouraging young children to practice proper posture and to engage in core strengthening activity is vital to laying a foundation for not just physical health but also for mental-emotional strength. Spinal health is the basis of balance and stability not just in our bodies, but in our minds and feelings.
Being and feeling strong inside is the fuel kids need to build confidence in exploring the world and overcoming obstacles. How they are able to count on and control their bodies has everything to do with their capacity to manage their focus, feelings, and behavior. When children learn to stand up straight and walk tall, they feel strong and think clearly. Why?
The spine is the central support of the body and nervous system. It connects and organizes all our systems while enabling us to stand upright, perform complex movement, and connect to each other. And though we are all born with perfect posture – just watch a 1 year old walking – there are many factors that inhibit healthy functioning, such as physical accidents, emotional trauma, family habits, nutrition, furniture, sedentary activities, long hours of sitting during growth spurts, etc. Current statistics indicate that poor posture is a serious problem.
80% of back and neck pain is a result of bad posture.
56% of teenage spines are out of alignment or deformed due to chronic slumping.
Children entering preschool are less developed in physical coordination, and, as a result, cognitive coordination
Childhood anxiety has been found to be correlated to inability to balance
Slumping kills off innate vitality and derails the development of confidence and capability. When kids slouch, skeletal alignment is compromised, muscles and ligaments struggle to keep balance, and positive chemical messengers which regulate thoughts and feelings are repressed. This leads to lack of core strength, poor balance, less memory, hindered eyesight, headaches, and an overall sense of weakness. For children, physical weakness translates into vulnerability, anxiety, fear, and frustration. Good posture and physical strength, on the other hand, empower them to be calmer, more relaxed, and more mentally and emotionally stable.
You can help kids build the self-confidence and resilience that comes with good posture and plenty of physical activity, aerobic and slow, intentional, by:
Having them checked out by a pediatric chiropractor or osteopath.
Noticing how they move and relate to the world? Are they open and receptive, competent and curious, or withdrawn and worried, closed and careful? Understand that however they are is a mind-body-emotional state, not just a physical habit. Support them in activities that grow a sense of strength and competence.
Model good posture. Discuss good posture and why it’s important. Notice other people’s posture and invite your kids to mimic them so they can experience how different postures feel and make them feel.
The freeEmbodied Mindfulness Video by Wellness Through Movement is an 8-minute animated story (see below for video), designed to be presented to children in 4 two-minute sections. It shows how two children who get in trouble for not listening come to understand what happened for them and how they can use a centering breath technique called, Home, to develop their ability to be mindful and to better direct their attention so that they can listen.
The program is the culmination of 30 years of work and research with children by co-creator, Catherine Rosasco Mitchell. She sent it to me recently after testing it for thirteen years in elementary schools. I was impressed with the simplicity, clarity, and accessibility of the video and with her accompanying User and Teacher Guides. I enthusiastically recommend the program to anyone working with children. What I love about this resource is that it’s free – thank you Catherine! – and that it directly addresses the fact that children are 90% more in their bodies than in their minds.
Children are full of energy, emotion, and sensation inside so they feel more than they think. To develop self-regulation, parents and teachers need to understand that children have to become aware of and understand what happens inside them when they don’t or can’t, hear, think, or pay attention in order to manage it better. They also need both encouragement to self-reflect and time to practice sensory – somatic tools or techniques to reset. When this process is offered and even modeled by their teachers and parents, kids can learn to work with themselves brilliantly. As Catherine explains eloquently: It is only by using the feelings of the body that you can truly help children access and understand their own perception, character, and relationship to others.
In addition to her scientifically designed sequences of movements and proprioception to increase self- awareness and support the development of both internal and external attention, I also admire Catherine’s advocacy for embodied education. She not only understands the vital role of embodiment in development, she also creates lesson plans that integrate sensory self-awareness and shows educators as well as professionals in the psychology, development, and neuroscience how to teach it. Check out her Teaching Embodiment is Crucial Poster presented at conferences on health and movement including the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) and American Association of Health, Physical Education and Dance (AAPERD).
To access and utilize this awesome free resource click here.
In the video below, Rafe Kelley, founder of Evolve Move Play, presents a valuable distinction between that which fills our attention and feeds our monkey minds and that which nourishes our humanity and fuels our personal development. It’s a valuable lens through which to assess our own lives.
How is the stimulation of a plugged in life affecting me? How do I spend my time? Am I filling my life with fluff or with meaning? Are my choices aligned with my values? Do I feel full and enriched or empty and depleted? Are there parts of me that are starving… for connection, expression, integration? Am I so busy that I’ve disconnected from myself, my health, my relationships, my dreams? Are my passions being replaced with addictions? What am I modeling for my children? What are my rules around technology for them?
As an educator and a parent, I believe distinguishing stimulation from nourishment is an essential lens through which to assess the lives and development of our children. Given the technologizing of childhood, it’s imperative that we protect the growing brain from the proven negative consequences of over-stimulation and inappropriate stimulation. We need to understand what is truly nourishing for the whole child or we risk a generation of kids who are dysregulated, out of synch with their own natures, and regulating through consumption.
In his TED Talk, Media and Children, pediatrician and researcher Dr. Dimitri Christakis, explains how over-stimulation from fast-paced and/or violent TV watching or other screen time actually damages the developing brain’s ability to pay attention and learn. He advocates for the nourishment of cognitive stimulation in early childhood instead. Cognitive stimulation comes from whole child engaging activities such as block play, reading, singing, dancing, cooking, etc. with parents and care-givers. Children who spend plenty of time getting nourished in these ways have very few attention or self-regulation issues later in life. Conversely, children, especially those under the age of 3, who watch lots of non-educational, inappropriately paced TV, have much higher rates of attention, regulation, and learning issues.
The official definition of executive function is: a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. Think of executive function as the “conductor” of all cognitive skills, enabling us to manage our lives, responsibilities, and projects. These skills include:
Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time.
Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings.
Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.
Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.
Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands.
Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.
Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected.
Looking at this list, it’s obvious that self-regulation is a critical competency of executive function in two major ways: social-emotional (appropriate behavior in a social context) and cognitive (focus, academic learning, problem-solving). When children are self-regulating, they can both stop or start doing something, even if they don’t want to. They can delay gratification; they can think ahead; they can control impulses and consider options. It is crucial that children learn basic self-regulation in early childhood because research indicates that “children who cannot control their emotions at age four are unlikely to be able to follow the teachers’ directions at age six, and will not become reflective learners in middle and high school.” (http://toolsofthemind.org/learn/resources/research-by-tools/)
Breathing Techniques for Executive Function
Breathing techniques offer easy-to-practice activities for building basic self-regulation in the body of youngsters and in your classroom. With something specific to do to support themselves when confronted with transitions, sharing, waiting, and re-directing impulses, children are better able to navigate those challenges. As they experience how specific ways of breathing enable them to tolerate feelings and manage impulses, they start to embody greater control. This process strengthens executive function, which builds self-esteem and self-trust.
Help kids learn how to count on their inner wisdom and intelligence. Make time for self-reflection and self-care throughout the day. Then introduce and practice breathing exercises regularly as a way to de-stress, recharge, and reset to to an optimal mind-body state. Below are 2 options that offer simple, effective tools for healthy self-regulation.
is a fun technique that is sure to make kids laugh and not take things too seriously. Because it requires make a silly blooping sound on the exhale, like a fish, it disperses tension, releases frustration, and busts the stress of over-efforting. Humor and playfulness are keys to accessing executive function and creative thinking. Physiologically, when you inhale deeply, you pull in lots of oxygen needed by our brain and body to stay relaxed and alert. When you exhale completely, you make room for more which helps us release toxins and recharge.
Take a deep breath through your nose, Fill up your cheeks with that breath and … Push it all out through your mouth while saying… Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, blooooooop.
And again, deep breath in your nose… Fill up your cheeks with it and … Exhale it out your mouth …
Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, blooooooop.
activates the midline of the body, connects both hemispheres of the brain, and relieves tension in the eye muscles. As they inhale, direct children to place one hand on their belly button and the other on their sternum, like giving themselves a hug. Then, as they exhale, have them move just their eyes (head remains still) slowly from right to left and back again 2-4 times. This movement facilitates improved eye teaming skills and cross-motor coordination.
Overall, Ocean Breath slows, calms, and centers both mind and body, which will enable children to access executive function. Directions
Place one hand on your belly button, place the other in the middle of your chest. Press your thumb and forefinger into the soft tissue points beneath your collar bones on either side of your sternum. Inhale fully through your nose and then, as you exhale slowly, move just your eyes from right to left.
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“Your training always took us back to self-regulation and coherence in ourselves, which enabled me to feel both personally inspired and professionally confident to share the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum program with children!"-Erin McFarland, Teacher, CA