6 tips for raising mentally healthy—and resilient—kids

We spoke to experts about how you can set your children up for life-long success
By Nicole Roder  Published on 02/14/2019 at 9:00 AM EDT
Kids can learn resiliency from a young age, given the right tools. Rawpixel

One thing that most psychologists agree on is this: Everyone experiences stress. The people who are mentally healthy have effective tools for overcoming that stress. In other words, they are resilient.

So, here’s the good news: Most parents have the capacity to give their kids tools to overcome stress and live happy, successful lives. Let’s take a look at what you, as a parent, can do to teach your kids resilience so that they grow up to be mentally healthy and happy.

1. Give them unstructured time

Kids have a lot of competing priorities and activities that demand their time and attention. They have school, homework, sports, music lessons, a favorite TV show and video games. Hopefully there’s a family dinner and eight to 10 hours of sleep in there somewhere. We know that your child’s education and extracurricular activities are important. But what’s equally important, and often overlooked, is unstructured time.

According to Dr. Helen R. Friedman, a clinical psychologist, kids need free time so that they can learn to simply sit with themselves and be quiet. “This is the heart of mindfulness,” says Dr. Friedman. “Mindfulness allows kids to sit down, be calm, and not be emotionally reactive to situations. This is part of having good EQ, or emotional quotient.”

Unstructured time is critical for healthy brain development, explains Donna M. Volpitta, Ed.D— founder of the Center for Resilient Leadership and author of The Resilience Formula—because it allows children the opportunity to create neural pathways for some very important skills.

“The brain is sort of like a jungle when kids are born,” says Dr. Volpitta, “and every experience we have makes pathways through that jungle.” Those neural pathways are the brain’s road map for every skill and piece of information that you know. So if you can play the piano or perform calculus, that means that your brain has the neural pathways for those skills.

Dr. Volpitta says that in order for young brains to develop the higher level pathways for so called “executive functions,” they need the opportunity to problem-solve on their own. “Our executive functions are things like planning ahead, impulse control, organization, communication, working together with people. Those are developed through problem solving. And that doesn’t happen nearly as readily in a piano lesson as it does on the playground.”

Research has shown that when kids spend more time playing, they are mentally healthier than when they have all of their time structured for them. The bottom line: Your kids’ brains need a little time to themselves in order to be healthy.

2. Limit screen time

Everyone enjoys watching a little TV or playing with the apps on their phones. But too much screen time can be a problem, especially for kids. Dr. Friedman says that limiting screen time helps to foster face-to-face relationships and play. “Childhood obesity has become a problem in this nation, and excessive screen time causes kids to become sedentary,” she says. “And even though screens sometimes allow contact with extended family and others, too much screen time can be isolating. Those face to face relationships are important for healthy emotional development.”

Dr. Volpitta also warns that video games and social media can “prime kids’ brains for anxiety and addiction. We’re priming the brain for that short-term dopamine burst.” When parents limit screen time, kids tend to play outside longer and learn new skills that take more work to achieve. When kids have to work hard over the long term to achieve a goal, they are rewarded in the end with a much bigger burst of feel-good neurochemicals. So the next time they are presented with a challenge, they will be more inclined to keep trying until they succeed, rather than expecting an immediate, short-term reward.

3. Teach empathy and gratitude through service work

Dr. Friedman says that empathy and gratitude are essential to good emotional health. “A high EQ is the ability to recognize our own emotions and those of others and use this information to guide our behavior,” she says.

Volunteering with your kids to serve other people is a fantastic way to build empathy and gratitude. You are putting them into situations in which they are likely to feel compassion for people, gratefulness for what they have, and pride in themselves. Service work is like exercise for these relationship-building emotions. And it’s good for kids’ brains, too.

According to Dr. Volpitta, feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety tends to provoke reactionary behavior that might feel good in the short-term, but it’s not good for long-term success. For example, a kid who gets worked up over a difficult homework assignment might tear up the paper and declare that she wants to quit school. But when people serve others, their brains give them all sorts of feel-good neurochemicals. This makes it easier for them to take a step back and use the parts of their brains that are good at long-term decision making.

4. Nurture their interests to provide a sense of purpose

In order to be happy, kids need to develop a sense of self, individuated from the rest of the family. “Nurturing a child’s unique interests develops his or her sense of self-worth and value,” says Dr. Friedman. “It also paves the way for what they might eventually do for a living. This is called ‘right livelihood.’ It means doing for pay what is aligned with one’s values, talents, and temperament. It helps ensure work satisfaction and general happiness for self and society. It’s positive for all.”

Does your son love music? Take him to concerts or sign him up for guitar lessons. Does your daughter love science? Let her create her own experiments in the kitchen. (Yes, it’s messy, but it’s worth it!) Whatever your kids enjoy, encourage them to enjoy it more. You will both be happier if you do.

5. Reframe challenges as opportunities to build resilience

Every human being experiences challenges and stress. How we handle that stress says a lot about our mental health.

Kids need to learn that a mistake, low test score, or lost soccer game doesn’t have to doom them to a life of failure and despair. Rather, they can use those experiences to build resilience.

“Our resilience is our response to any challenge, good, bad, big, or small,” says Dr. Volpitta. Whenever a challenge crops up, people have the opportunity to think it through to come up with an effective solution, but that takes practice. So when parents see their kids struggling with something, Dr. Volpitta recommends that we guide them through that thinking process rather than swooping in to help. “We can say to the kids, ‘Is your strategy working? What supports do you have right now? What else can you try?’”

According to Dr. Volpitta, failing and trying again are crucial to learning resilience. “I always tell parents, self-esteem isn’t a gift you give your kids. It’s a neurochemical response you rob them of when you do things for them that they could do themselves.”

6. Model healthy habits.

It’s so much easier to tell your kids to turn off their tablets than it is to pull yourself away from your smartphone, isn’t it? But if we want our kids to learn healthy habits, we have to show them how, and it starts with our own behavior.

“If parents are blowing up at every small thing, so will their children,” says Dr. Friedman. “Good EQ means using anger and frustration as a guide to understanding what you need and seeking that out rather than losing your temper.”

Parents need to be sure to include self care in their own daily routine as well. “We all need the right tools for healthy performance,” says Dr. Volpitta. “One of them is good social connections, another is rest and taking breaks. We need good nutrition and exercise. And it’s important for parents to practice compassion, pride, and gratitude as well. Sometimes it’s so hard for parents to do those things, and it’s OK if you’re not good at all of them. It’s OK to make mistakes sometimes. But when your kids see you actively making a choice to exercise, eat healthy, or engage in social relationships, it helps cement those things as priorities in their lives too.”

The world is never going to be stress free. Our children will absolutely encounter difficult situations. It’s tempting to keep them bubble-wrapped and hidden from all the bad things in the world. Of course, that’s impossible. It’s not good for them either.

But parents do have the capacity to teach their kids the skills they will need to overcome stress and lead happy, successful lives.

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