How to Protect Your Child’s Mental Health


Mental health has become an increasingly important topic in today’s complex world. As we see
the stigma start to melt away, more and more people are sharing their stories and taking
proactive steps towards good mental health. However, a group that is sometimes not included

in the discussion are children. Their struggles look different, often manifesting in problem
behavior, and require different solutions. It goes without saying that serious mental health
concerns require the guidance of a medical professional. However, there are simple evidenced-
based practices that every parent should know to promote good mental health hygiene for
their child.

Unstructured Play
As adults, we feel the pressure to expose our children to every opportunity available. Although
well meaning, sometimes we can unintentionally overschedule our kids which can result in
stress and burn out. For children, unstructured play and social time is critical for self-care and
healthy development. Daily play that is self-directed by the child promotes creativity, creates
new neural connections in the brain and is the primary way children express themselves and

Family Dinner Time
Family dinner is another great opportunity for supporting mental health. Gathering around the
table is sometimes the only opportunity in the day families can take a break, put down
technology and connect with one another. Bonus – this is a great time to start teaching kids
about nutrition and the power of a healthy balanced meal! According to research, having
dinner together as a family at least four times a week has positive effects on child development.
Family dinners have been linked to a lower risk of obesity, substance abuse, eating disorders,
and an increased chance of graduating from high school.

Solid Sleep Routines

Just like us, children need adequate sleep to function in a healthy way, regulate mood and

focus. Proper sleep for a child depending on their age can look like 10-14+ hours! Promoting
regular and restful sleep is largely dependent on a good routine. Healthy routines include a
consistent bedtime and relaxing rituals like a warm bath, reading a book and staying away from
sugary treats and screen time. All of these activities calm the brain for deep restorative sleep.

Positive Adults
Every child needs a village of support in their corner. This can look like extended family or
mentors outside of family. Youth mentoring programs can be a great option and help build a
child’s confidence, improve their mental health and connect them with opportunities to be
successful. Last year, 100% of children enrolled in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern
Illinois youth mentoring program experienced an improvement in their ability to regulate
negative emotions after 1-year in the program.

The bottom line is that a proactive approach to mental health has never been more important
as our modern lives seem to be at odds with our sense of mental peace. With an abundance of
information at our disposal it can feel overwhelming to know where to begin. Our advice is to
keep things simple and focus on building a foundation of good mental health hygiene:
unstructured play and social time, family dinners and healthy meals, good sleep routines and
positive adult support. Finally, if you feel like your child needs extra support, don’t be afraid or
ashamed to lean into community resources and mental health professionals. We are all in this

Written by Heather Freed, LCSW, President & CEO in collaboration with Samantha Maddox

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