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

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