One in seven children aged between 4 and 17 suffered from a mental health disorder in the last 12 months. This equates to over 500,000 children, with the majority being male. Despite these alarming statistics, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce the risk your child has of developing a mental health condition.
1. Improve your child’s diet
Nutrition plays an important role in your child’s health, particularly his or her mood, concentration, and behaviour. Therefore, it is worthwhile using some simple strategies to provide your child with the best diet and eating habits possible. Here are some steps you can take:
- Eat more natural foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and nuts/ seeds
- Set consistent meal times
- Limit the intake of juice or perhaps dilute it
- Plan meals in advance
- Control portion sizes
- Limit the availability of ‘junk food’ in the house
- Regularly introduce new foods into his or her diet
- Get them involved in the meal-preparation process
2. Use supportive nutrients
Several nutrients have been identified as being beneficial for improving your child’s mood, concentration, and behaviour. By ensuring they are present in your child’s diet or are taken in a supplemental form on a regular basis, you will be able to minimise the chance of your child having problems with his or her mood, concentration, and behaviour. The nutrients are as follows:
B vitamins: Research indicates that B vitamins play an important role in mood regulation and general thinking processes. This is because of their essential role in energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, and neurotransmitter production. B vitamins are found in spinach, parsley, broccoli, beetroot, and asparagus.
Omega-3s: Omega-3s have an ability to promote a positive and healthy mood. This is due to their potent anti-inflammatory properties, encouragement of synaptic plasticity, neuroprotective effects, and enhancement of neurotransmission. Omega-3s are found mainly in fish or flax seeds, or their equivalent oils.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C has demonstrated an ability to improve mood in children. It does so through various mechanisms including its powerful antioxidant effects and corresponding neuroprotective effects. It can also affect mood-lifting brain chemicals such as serotonin, and seems to have a protective function in the brain. Vitamin C is found in oranges, kale, broccoli, and strawberries.
Vitamin D: Research has shown that vitamin D improves depressive symptoms. Its mechanisms of action include regulating serotonin synthesis, influencing dopamine production, reducing inflammatory responses, modulating the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) response, and assisting neurogenesis. Vitamin D is found in fish, cheese, and egg yolks; it may also be synthesised in the skin from sunlight.
Iron: Iron has demonstrated mood-improving effects due to its involvement in neurotransmitter and neuromodulator functions. It is also involved in dopamine receptor function and the function of various other neurotransmitters including serotonin and the catecholamines. Iron is found in red meat, chicken, seafood, green leafy vegetables, beans, and peas.
Zinc: Zinc has demonstrated an ability to reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity in children as well as improve their mood. When zinc is used in conjunction with other nutrients it is also helpful as a treatment for ADHD. Zinc’s ability to improve mental wellbeing comes from its antioxidant properties, its ability to promote neuronal growth in the brain, its ability to influence brain receptors associated with mood, and its influence on the immune system. Zinc is found in pumpkin seeds, garlic, sesame seeds, and chickpeas.
Magnesium: Over 300 enzymes require the presence of magnesium. These enzymes are essential for the production of hormones and brain chemicals associated with mood and behaviour. Research shows that magnesium helps reduces stress, anxiety, and irritability. In fact, low magnesium levels have been demonstrated in children with high levels of anger and irritability. Magnesium is found in spinach, pumpkin seeds, yoghurt, and almonds.
Several of these nutrients are also found in BCN’s Cool & Sharp for kids.
3. Get your child involved in regular exercise or sport
Everyone knows the physical benefits of regular exercise, especially when it comes to preventing childhood obesity. However, what is less well-known is the fact that regular physical activity offers a range of additional benefits with regards to mood, concentration, and behaviour.
Exercise increases the blood flow to all body tissues, including the brain, which means the greater transport of oxygen and nutrients. Researchers have also discovered that exercise promotes better brain function, resulting in an improved memory. A higher fitness level, resulting from regular physical activity, improves a child’s ability to concentrate, which is particularly important at the end of a long school day. Studies also report that regular exercise reduces anxiety and depression in children, in addition to improving their mood, self-esteem, and confidence.
4. Improve your child’s sleeping habits
Poor sleeping habits in children are associated with poor cognitive performance, a depressed mood, short-term memory loss, and an increase in food consumption. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to improve your child’s sleeping habits:
- Put them to bed at the same time each night
- Don’t allow them to use their electronic equipment in bed
- Ensure the room is as dark as possible
- Don’t allow them to snack prior to bed-time
- Ensure all electronic equipment, including a clock radio, are several metres away from their body
5. Limit your child’s use of technology (computers, tablets, iPhones, etc.)
These days it is common for children to be considered ‘wired and tired’, meaning they’re agitated but exhausted. Furthermore, they may even be diagnosed with a mental-health condition such as depression, bipolar disorder, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Many psychologists believe that a child’s mood dysregulation often results from excessive use of electronic devices such as computers, tablets, and other devices, which cause hyperarousal, compulsive use, and may negatively impact sleep.
6. Help them develop healthy social connections (friendships)
Healthy social connections help children learn the values, knowledge, and skills that enable them to relate to others effectively, make positive contributions to their family and community, and build a positive sense of self.
Here are a few actions you can take to support your child’s social development:
- Teach them to think through and solve the day-to-day social difficulties they encounter.
- Ask questions that encourage them to empathise with others. For example, ask them, ‘How would you feel if…?’
- Discuss moral issues with them and encourage them to state their opinions and reasons.
7. Be consistent with your expectations, disciplines, and routines
Being consistent as a parent is the key to your child’s behaviour according to renowned behavioural therapist, James Lehman. However, many parents find it extremely difficult. For example, when you establish a rule for your child but later let it slide because you’re tired or in a hurry.
Consistency is essential for children to be able to predict outcomes. For example, can a child predict how their mother will react whenever they throw a tantrum? In some children, inconsistency in a parent’s response causes anxiety for the child. More importantly, if a parent is not consistent with their expectations, disciplines, and routines, then they aren’t predictable for the child and thus the child is unable to internalise the values, knowledge, and experiences that ultimately shape his or her behaviour.