America’s children are facing a mental health crisis. Rates of anxiety, depression and addiction have risen since the pandemic and were high before it began. Worse, more than 60% of these troubled youth do not receive the mental health treatment they need. Financial hardship and ongoing stigma create barriers to care.
Fortunately, you can take steps to protect their mental well-being. It all starts at home.
Here’s how to improve your child’s mental health through nutrition and lifestyle.
1. Find the right learning environment for them
Your child’s school plays an important role in their overall mental health. The right learning environment empowers young minds and makes them feel safe to learn. Unfortunately, issues such as bullying and overemphasizing academics while ignoring the other needs of growing children plague many institutions.
What should you look for when choosing a school? Ask about their curriculum – do they include social-emotional learning or stick to the “three R’s”? What anti-bullying measures do they implement and how do they handle disciplinary infractions?
Many parents find online learning preferable, especially in today’s world of pandemics and gun violence. If you choose this type of solution, make sure your academy provides opportunities for students to connect with their peers online and in person through field trips. Developing emotional intelligence is a critical skill that is learned in childhood through interacting with a variety of other people.
2. Engage them in positive extracurricular activities…
Extracurricular activities should be encouraged to improve your child’s mental health. However, how you do it is far more important than where you enroll them. Forcing a kid who hates athletics to join the pee-wee football team just because you love sports creates unnecessary stress. Why not let them choose something they like, like chess or yearbook club?
Your school isn’t the only place you can find free or low-cost extracurricular entertainment for your child’s mental and physical health. Also consider the following options:
- Your local parks and recreation department: Most parks and rec centers offer free team sports for people of all ages.
- Your local YMCA: Teens who don’t like to compete need exercise for their mental health. They can swim and use a variety of workout equipment at the Y for much less than many gym memberships.
- Your local library: Most libraries do much more than loan books. They offer courses in everything from computer science to birdwatching.
3. …but leave plenty of downtime
As much as you want your child to be active and involved, it’s important to avoid the trap of great schedules. what is that When you pack so much every day that your baby doesn’t have room to breathe. They wake up, go to school, complete homework and practice soccer, and come home and have half an hour of quiet reading before bed. Whoops! Where on earth do they get time to have babies?
Think about your role at work. If your employer insists on micromanaging 14 out of every 16 waking hours, you probably won’t last very long. Your kids don’t appreciate it, either — including plenty of time in their schedules for unstructured play.
4. Reduce consumption of ultra-processed junk food
Kids love junk food. Bright colors and attractive packaging draw them in just as effectively as their glucose-spiking contents. These snacks make life convenient for parents, easily slipping into the lunchbox. However, you should limit your child’s consumption of ultra-processed junk if you want to improve their mental health through nutrition.
Why? Ultra-processed foods are those made from food extracts – mainly hydrogenated fats, sugars and other starches. They provide little nutritional value while promoting widespread inflammation in the body. Inflammation affects mental health, contributing to disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Furthermore, these foods absorb quickly, raising blood sugar. This dynamic results in a debilitating crash that leaves your child feeling hungrier than ever – so they reach for other foods, leading to weight gain. Childhood obesity can cause considerable emotional distress and contribute to problems such as bullying. This can adversely affect a child’s self-esteem over the years, as excess shedding does not ease with age.
5. Emphasize plant-based whole foods that nourish their neurons
What should you feed your little ones? Your best approach is to eat a plant-based diet rich in whole foods—the ones that look the same as they do in nature. It’s the difference between a raw apple or dried apple ring and a pie.
Try the following foods that research has shown to affect mental health:
- Nuts and seeds: They are rich in minerals like selenium, magnesium and zinc, which are crucial for proper brain function. Some magnesium-deficient patients with depression recover better from a supplement than from prescription medication.
- Fatty fish: Fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which support neuron health.
- Brightly colored fruits and vegetables: It contains various micronutrients like manganese which play an important role in mental health.
6. Increase your probiotic consumption
Another way to improve your child’s mental health through nutrition and lifestyle is to make sure they get plenty of prebiotics and probiotics. What do they do and what is the difference between the two?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in your gut. Researchers have found that they send signals to your brain that affect mood, and they continue to investigate how changing your gut microbiota can improve mental health. Prebiotics are different forms of fiber that you don’t digest but nourish these good bacteria colonies.
How can you get more food for your child? Include the following foods in their lunch:
- cottage cheese
- Kombucha (non-alcoholic variety)
- Miso soup
7. Model a healthy lifestyle
The best way to improve your child’s mental health through lifestyle changes is to model the behaviors you want your child to adopt. After all, young children learn more by watching you than by what you say.
What should you do? Fortunately, the following activities will improve your mental health while teaching your little one healthy coping strategies for life:
- Start a yoga and meditation practice: Anyone of any age can do yoga or just sit quietly and breathe. These practices put you in touch with the greatest emotional intelligence teacher – yourself. They manage stress healthily so it doesn’t snowball into an anxiety disorder.
- Practice healthy boundary setting: Allow your child to do the same. Don’t automatically punish the word “no”—it’s an important way to communicate need. Instead, let them know that it’s okay to set boundaries and model how to do it, perhaps by saying, “I can’t today, but I can on Saturday,” when a neighbor asks for a favor.
- Identify, name and manage your emotions: Use a feelings chart or book to help your children learn to identify feelings such as frustration, annoyance, excitement, or anxiety. Let them positively manage those same emotions by saying, “I’m feeling a little down right now. I’m going to take a 15-minute timeout and come back to it later.”
- War stigma: Even children raised in healthy families may need therapy at times – you can’t protect them from everything. Teach them that there is no shame in reaching out for help and let them see you do the same when needed.
Improve your child’s mental health through nutrition and lifestyle
Children in America and beyond face a mental health crisis. Fortunately, you have holistic ways to deal with this. Follow the tips above to improve your child’s mental health through nutrition and lifestyle. You’ll reap the rewards of improved health and happier times with your little one.