This is Part 6 in a multi-week series of blogs focused on the ABCs of Healthy Kids. Learn more at www.snohd.org/healthykids.
Top Three Take-Aways:
- Keeping kids physically healthy includes building good routines for exercise, eating, hygiene and sleep.
- Mental and emotional health is important even from a young age – children of all ages can experience intense emotions, and adults can help them build skills to cope in healthy ways.
Children should learn to listen to their bodies and their feelings, and to recognize when they may need help to keep their body and mind healthy.
Helping children make the link
Keeping our bodies healthy is much easier when we take care of our mental health, too. The same is true in reverse – it’s easier to keep our minds healthy when we are meeting the needs of our bodies.
Kids are still learning to make the connection between their physical and mental health. Most adults are still working on that connection, too.
Talk with children about physical and mental health. Be a good listener. Work with them on being able to think about and answer questions like:
- How are you feeling?
- What do you need?
- Does anything hurt?
- Is anything scaring or stressing you?
- Are you hungry/thirsty/tired?
- Are you sad/frustrated/worried?
Being able to recognize your needs is one of the most valuable skills children can learn. It can help them to prevent or to recognize and address health problems early.
5 for Physical Health
Here are five key things to consider building into your children’s routines.
- Physical activity. Regular exercise helps reduce potential health complications. Find activities kids enjoy that get them moving every day. It may take different activities for every child – maybe team or individual sports, an impromptu dance party to the latest animated movie soundtrack, a casual daily stroll, or just some time to run around outside.
- Healthy diet. Help kids eat a well-rounded diet with fruits, vegetables, protein, whole grains, dairy, and plenty of water to drink. For children with dietary restrictions, look for nutritious alternatives – such as milk alternatives if dairy isn’t an option. Be careful not to make children feel ashamed about weight or body shape. Instead, focus on positive reinforcement of healthy eating, limit the junk food available at home, and model good eating habits by eating healthy yourself.
- Personal hygiene. Keeping clean can help protect against illnesses, infections, and rashes or other skin problems. Young children are still learning how to thoroughly wash, and teens may need reminders. Teach kids proper handwashing with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds, scrubbing palms, backs of hands, and between fingers. Children should take regular showers or baths and wash hard-to-reach areas. Brushing and flossing teeth is also something everyone should do at least twice daily.
- Good sleep habits. Rest is as important as diet and exercise. Lack of sleep increases risk of problems over time, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Try to keep a routine for bedtime and wake-up that allows about 7-9 hours of sleep for older kids (babies and children need more – make sure they can sleep whenever they are tired). Help sleep be restful by having kids “unplug” from electronic screens for at least an hour before bed and limiting distractions in the sleeping space.
- Teach them to listen to their body. Our bodies often tell us more than we realize. Help children learn to pay attention to important cues. Are they hungry? Thirsty? Is something causing them pain? Do they feel over-tired? Encourage them to be aware of how they are feeling physically so they can take care of their body’s needs.
5 for Mental Health
Children of all ages can experience intense emotions, stress and trauma. Don’t dismiss a young person’s mental health needs as trivial or temporary. Here are five tips to help focus on mental health:
- Understanding emotions. Emotions can be challenging to understand and easy to mix up. For example, children may express anger when the root is frustration and disappointment with their inability to accomplish or access something. Adults can help by recognizing that, even at an early age, children experience nuanced emotions. They need guidance to help them better understand what they are feeling, why they are feeling it and how to respond.
- Communication. Talking about feelings is something children should start learning early in life. Even before they can talk in full phrases, it is helpful to encourage babies and toddlers to express themselves. Make it clear with your words, facial expressions and body language that you are paying attention to how they feel and what they are trying to tell you.
- Trusted adults. Having multiple trusted adults – not just parents but also aunts, uncles, grandparents, child care providers, coaches, teachers, counselors or others – increases the likelihood that children and teens will get the support they need in times of crisis. More than one trusted adult also gives children or teens someone to turn to if they feel uncomfortable about something another adult in their life has said or done. Parents or guardians can help by supporting connections with safe and trusted adults.
- Healthy outlets. Communication is important, but often working through emotions requires action, too. Do your children have healthy ways to relieve stress? Take time to learn what works for them, and don’t be afraid to try new activities. Are there hobbies that help you center yourself that you can share? As they get older, are there activities like journaling and art, music and dance, or stretching and jogging that might suit your teens’ needs for working through difficult feelings?
- Teach them to listen to their feelings. Help children and teens pay attention to how they are feeling, why they are feeling that way, and how they are reacting to those feelings. Work on acknowledging feelings rather than being overwhelmed by them. Emotions often tell us about core needs, like time to rest or space to process big life changes.
If you a child or teen in your life is experiencing a mental or emotional crisis, help is available. The chat line at imhurting.org, or a phone call to 800-584-3578, can connect you with an expert to help talk through helping a young person in crisis.
Take some time now to check off the “F” in the ABC’s for healthy kids. Have you talked with your child about healthy habits for their mind and body? Are you modeling those habits yourself?
Kids need support for both physical and mental health to lay a foundation for lifelong wellness.