The risk of mental health problems in children is on the rise. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness states that 20 percent of children between 13 and 18 years old live with a mental health condition. Stress from school, bullying, and other factors can raise the risk of developing mental health issues during adolescence.

Fortunately, parents can play a significant role in supporting their child’s mental health. Helping children build healthy habits at home and in other areas of their life can help promote better mental well-being and lower the risk of having mental health disorders. The following information offers guidance for parents on helping children develop healthy habits that lead to improved mental health.

Understanding the Link Between Physical and Mental Health

What promotes good mental health in children? Focusing on physical health is a key part of supporting mental health. There’s a strong link between physical health and mental well-being. Individuals with physical health problems have a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems. Likewise, those with a mental health disorder have a greater risk of developing physical health issues. Establishing healthy habits helps children maintain good physical and mental health.

Nutrition and Mental Health

The foods that children eat can have a significant impact on their mental well-being. A diet filled with nutritious foods helps support brain health and reduces the risk of damage to brain cells. The right foods also boost serotonin levels, which helps support mood. Diets filled with unhealthy foods, such as refined sugars, have been linked to higher risks of depression and other mood disorders.

How can parents help their children build healthy eating habits?

  • Keep healthy snacks available
  • Encourage children to choose healthy foods instead of unhealthy foods
  • Depending on age, have children help make healthy meals for the whole family

Exercise and Mental Health

Physical activity offers a fantastic way to support children’s mental health. Exercise releases brain chemicals that have a “feel good” effect, which can help improve children’s mood. Physical activity can also help ease stress and build confidence.

What can parents do to make sure their children get regular exercise?

  • Take walks together to explore the neighborhood
  • Play games in the yard
  • Visit local parks and playgrounds where children can run around and burn off energy
  • Have dance parties at home
  • Go swimming

Sleep and Mental Health

Children who don’t get enough sleep can develop mental health issues, including behavioral problems or mood problems. A lack of sleep can put children at a higher risk of having anxiety or other mental health issues. Getting enough sleep helps regulate children’s behavior and emotions, resulting in better mental health.

How might parents help children build healthy sleep habits?

  • Help children set up a regular bedtime routine that includes calming activities
  • Read a book to them, or have them read on their own if they’re old enough
  • Have children put away electronics a couple of hours before bedtime

Children practicing mindfulness

Mindfulness and Mental Health

Learning to be mindful can have a positive impact on children’s mental health. Mindfulness involves being present instead of thinking about the past or future, which can help children focus better and take their mind off of stress. Practicing mindfulness can take some time for children to learn, especially if they’re younger.

How can parents help their children learn to be mindful?

  • Do simple breathing exercises where children focus on breathing in and out while counting
  • Ask children to name things they can currently see, feel, hear, touch, and smell to encourage them to focus on their senses
  • Take walks outside while playing “I Spy”

Social Connections and Mental Health

Being social is an important part of children’s mental health. Forming positive social connections with other children can help boost self-esteem and self-confidence, while also lowering the risk of depression and other mental health problems.

What can parents do to help children build healthy social connections?

  • Model positive interactions with others for children to learn from
  • Arrange playdates with children’s friends
  • Encourage children to connect with other children who share their interests
  • Model respect and empathy for others
  • Teach children how to resolve disagreements or conflicts in a healthy manner

Routine and Structure

Children thrive on having structure in their lives. Routines and structure provide children with a sense of stability and security, which can help lower the risk of developing anxiety or other mental health issues. Structure and routines also help children form positive connections with others.

What steps can parents take to help children establish and maintain healthy routines?

  • Create a schedule that children can follow, but leave room for adjustments as needed
  • Plan at least one meal together as a family for quality time
  • Have children go to bed at the same time each night, even on weekends
  • Make sure children know the household or family rules they’re expected to follow
  • Set rules that are reasonable and appropriate for children based on their age

Child playing on their phone

Balancing Screen Time

From TV shows to online kids’ games and apps on tablets and phones, managing children’s screen time is important for their mental health. Research shows that heavy or medium screen time is linked to poorer mental health. Balancing screen time and other activities can help reduce the risk of mental health problems in children.

How might parents effectively balance their children’s screen time?

  • Set limits on the amount of screen time children are allowed to have each day
  • Make rules about what children are allowed to do on devices during screen time
  • Consider having multiple short screen time sessions instead of one longer session
  • Keep devices out of children’s rooms at night
  • Encourage fun activities for children to do when they’re not using devices

Taking the time to help children build healthy habits in all areas of their life is an essential part of supporting their mental health. Learning these habits during childhood can help children grow into adults who have good mental and physical health. Keep in mind that modeling these habits as a parent and promoting them at home gives children the encouragement they need to adopt these in their own life.

About the Author: Amanda Delgado

Amanda Delgado has been writing about therapy and other mental health topics for more than a decade. She has a bachelor's degree in Psychology and a strong interest in therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.