By Alicia Jorgenson, M.D., Psychiatrist on the Swedish Ambulatory Behavioral Health Team
Did you know that one in five children / teens will have a serious mental health disorder according to the CDC? Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to prevent a portion of mental health problems from ever happening in the first place?
As a child psychiatrist, I am excited to share some thoughts about prevention and mental wellness. Recent research in preschoolers (ages zero to five years) suggests there are ways to improve emotional well-being and prevent mental health disorders before they begin. In other words, there are scientifically proven techniques to help raise emotionally strong, resilient children.
Building healthy brains begins with a healthy home environment. As parents, you are a central part of creating that environment.
The preschool period is thought to be the most critical period of brain development. Building healthy brains begins with a healthy home environment. As parents, you are a central part of creating that environment. Let me share the top five ways to promote a healthy home, and thus, a healthy brain for your child, based on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology. The sooner you can start implementing these with your child, the better.
As parents, you are the most important model of nutrition and eating behaviors for your children. No pressure, right? Parents teach kids when to eat, what to eat and how to eat. Responsive feeding (rather than restricting or pressuring your child to eat) is recommended. We know that unhealthy dietary patterns in kids can create mental health problems later in life. And the opposite is also true – healthy diets are associated with improved mental health.
- Takeaway: Eat structured meals as a family – typically three meals a day plus two snacks. Focus on fruits and vegetables. If you can start to make healthy changes in your diet, your child will also benefit.
Although you know physical activity is good for the body, it’s also has benefits for the brain. Decreased physical activity in childhood has been associated with more mental health problems in adulthood. Participation in sports consistently predicts improved emotional well-being. Studies have also found that aerobic exercise can help reduce core symptoms of ADHD and depression.
- Takeaway: Encourage physical activity as early as possible and minimize sedentary behavior (ex. screen time). Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise (or more!) per day as a family.
Mindfulness practices (defined broadly as non-judgmental focus on present moment) are becoming increasingly relevant in the medical field. There is more and more data supporting stress reduction and improved wellness for adults who practicing mindfulness and new research recommends teaching these skills earlier in life, especially in school settings, to help kids become more self-aware.
- Takeaway: As parents, start to learn about mindfulness practices yourself and try meditation for five minutes a day. Then you can start teaching your kids about the basics of belly breathing and focusing on breath. Aim to meditate (as a family or individuals) every day.
Emerging neuroscience research suggests that playing a musical instrument is associated with positive brain development. Other studies have found that music therapy for at-risk populations can improve speech and reading scores. Even just listening to music has benefits too, especially classical music.
- Takeaway: Consider finding ways to help your child learn to play an instrument. Set up lessons, help them practice each day and even listen to music as a family.
Let's talk about the most effective type of parenting for cultivating healthy brains, sometimes called positive parenting. It is important to know that some parenting styles actually place kids at a greater risk for mental health problems, i.e. ignoring your child's needs or using critical, harsh or inconsistent discipline. So what does positive parenting mean in practice?
Here are the core features:
“Child directed play” or spending positive one-on-one time with your child each day and letting them take the lead
Focusing on use of positive reinforcement (catching them doing “right” rather than “wrong”) and ignoring noncompliant behavior
Keeping routines and consistent house rules and
Using natural consequences for misbehaviors
Be aware that how you encourage and discipline your child has a huge impact on brain development.
- Takeaway: Spend at least 15 minutes per day playing with your child and let them take the lead. During this time, try to narrate what your child is doing and imitate their actions. This is a great time to praise them for what they are doing well. Try creating a relaxing bedtime routine with reading for 5-10 minutes each night (as reading has been shown to improve language and listening skills).
Hopefully, these tips will be helpful for you as parents as you aim to improve resilience and emotional intelligence for your children. If you are having trouble implementing any of these strategies and want more resources, talk to your primary care provider.
Find a doctor
At Swedish, behavioral health specialists are embedded in many primary care clinics to help you cultivate healthy changes for yourself and your child. Find a primary care doctor or a behavioral health provider at Swedish.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.
The Future of Preschool Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention, Hudziak and Achangeli, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America (2017)
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