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“They’re just a child; they have no reason to be depressed.” This is something I hear often as a pediatric psychologist. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 children has an impairing mental health disorder. And 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses actually start before the age of 14.

We also know that these numbers are unfortunately higher for racially and ethnically diverse children or children who are part of the LGBTQ community. This is why at On Our Sleeves, the national movement for children’s mental health, we encourage every adult with a child in their life to check in with those children and normalize talking about our thoughts, emotions and experiences every day. 

It’s also possible to promote the mental health and wellness of your kids through daily habits. Here’s how to help them thrive as they develop, plus how to know when to seek additional help from a professional.

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Related: Dear parents of children with a mental illness

7 daily habits to build strong mental health in kids

You probably already know some of the healthy habits your child needs to keep them physically healthy. Similarly, there are several daily habits you can try to support their mental health.

Related: Teens are in crisis, CDC says. Here are 6 ways parents can help

1. Keep routines consistent

Have you noticed how your child wants to watch the same movie over and over again? That’s because kids love repetition. Repetition gives them a sense of control because they know what to expect. That’s why routines are so helpful for a child’s behavior and mental health. 

For young kids, it can be helpful to have visuals of their routines, so they have a reminder of what to do. For example, show pictures of a child brushing their teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc. for the morning routine. For older kids, it can be a list of times so that they know when they need to be out the door or when it’s time for lights out.

Related: It’s science: Having a routine helps your family be happier

2. Create a schedule together

Along the same lines as routines, schedules will also reduce power struggles and build independence by helping kids know what to expect—and when. 

Think about keeping consistent bedtimes, mealtimes, homework and play time every day. Creating your family schedules with some input from your children can also go a long way, especially as they get older.

3. Create time for daily self-care

When creating your family’s daily schedules, do not forget to add time for self-care. Children need time to relax and wind-down, just like adults. Model taking time for yourself too—kids learn by watching us! Self-care looks different for everyone, but you can encourage your kids to try things such as going for a walk, meditation, deep breathing exercises, cooking, baking, playing music or arts and crafts. 

Related: Why I give my kids mental health days

4. Encourage fun

Make sure to allow time for fun activities. We know that staying active and doing things we enjoy is one of the best things we can do for our mental health. It’s great to have kids engage in sports, clubs or hobbies that they enjoy. 

It’s also good to have time to do family activities, even if what you do together changes from week to week. This can be an excellent time to allow your child to have a voice in the family. This may look like letting your child choose the activity for playtime and following their lead. For older children, ask them what things they wish you could do as a family. Then come up with ways to incorporate some of those activities in your free time. 

5. Teach emotional regulation

Just like we teach kids their colors, numbers and letters, we have to teach them about their emotions. Start by simply teaching them emotion words and how different emotions feel in their bodies. For example, “It looks like you are angry because your fists are clenched, and your face is red. Are you feeling angry?” You can also talk about how your body feels with different emotions, “I can tell that I’m nervous because my stomach feels funny and my legs are a little shaky.” Then you can discuss how to best cope with those emotions. Remember, no emotion is good or bad. Our job is to validate their emotion and then discuss how to best respond to how they are feeling. Talking about your own personal emotions and how you cope with them is an excellent way for them to learn!

Related: Want to raise resilient kids? Teach them to embrace their feelings

6. Tune into self-talk

Our thoughts impact how we feel and behave. As adults, we can help our children notice and challenge their negative self-talk or inaccurate perceptions of the world. For example, catch them when they say things like, “I can’t do that” or “No one likes me.” Gently help them find evidence for and against those thoughts and then create a new thought that is more accurate.

A simple way to help them practice positive thinking habits is by cultivating gratitude. For example, at dinner, each family member can share something they are grateful for and something they are proud of from that day.

7. Encourage social connections

Community belonging, social support and trust in others are all linked to positive mental health. Encourage your child to create a network of people at school, in your community, with neighbors and family. You can also encourage kindness toward others, which we know can be a positive way to build healthy relationships.  

Related: Kids can have seasonal affective disorder, too

When to seek professional help

Just like some people get physically sick despite the best health habits, your child may still experience mental health concerns. 

Take note if your child suddenly experiences any of the following signs and symptoms: 

  • Loses interest in their favorite things
  • Is not interested in socializing
  • Experiences dramatic changes in mood
  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Struggling to focus or stay motivated

If these changes get in the way of day-to-day life or if they’re happening most days for more than two weeks, it may be time to seek professional help. Talk to your child’s pediatrician or school about your concerns, or contact a licensed mental health professional. Write down what you’ve been observing, including specific examples if you can. 

Seek immediate help if you’re seeing signs of self-injury or suicidal thoughts in your child. The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available for calls or text at 988 or you can call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.  

A version of this story was originally published on Nov. 30, 2022. It has been updated.

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