Parenting for good mental health in children

By Anna I. Guerdjikova, PhD, MSW, LSW

“Mens sana in corpore sano” is a Latin saying from the Satires of Juvenal (ad c.60–c.130) , literally translating to ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’ and widely used nowadays to describe the concept of wellness – the need for both physical and mental wellbeing to be present for a person to be healthy. When raising children, paying attention to both aspects of health is indeed critical to ensure their bodies and minds grow and develop to the best of their potential. The mnemonic below (BE SAFE) can help with remembering the key concepts of how to parent healthy children.

B– Build sense of belonging. Ensure that your child socializes with an appropriate peer group, that they participate in activities suitable for their age and that they learn to develop nontoxic friendships. Spending time with relatives and family friends fosters sense of security and belonging and teaches children how to nurture meaningful relationships.

EEducate and encourage. Encourage children to develop age appropriate competencies, both social and academic. Be their role model in teaching them respect, acceptance of diversity, responsibility, accountability and kindness. Reinforce positive behaviors and decision making, encourage them to help others by setting an example (like volunteering as a family).

S– Enough sleep is absolutely critical for wellness (9-13h/ night for ages 3-12; 8-10h/ night for teenagers).1 More than 70% of children in a contemporary family get less sleep than recommended, thus improving sleep hygiene for everyone in the household can significantly boost family wellness. Help them establish and keep a regulated schedule (even on weekends and during vacations) by setting an example and discussing the benefits of good sleeping habits.

A –According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guideline issued in 2018, children 6 to 17 years of age can “achieve substantial health benefits by doing moderate-and vigorous-intensity physical activity for periods of time that add up to 60 minutes or more each day”.2 Unstructured play in the park, biking, walking, and sports, both recreational and competitive, they all count.

F –Appropriate food choices with up to 5 servings of fruits and veggies per day and at least a few family meals a week. Frequent family meals increase the odds of child positive social skills and engagement in school, and decrease the likelihood of child problematic social behaviors3; they also have protective effect on the mental health of adolescents, particularly for depressive symptoms in girls. 4

E -Limit use of electronics. In 2016, the American Pediatric Association issued recommendations regarding screen time use and while they vary by age group, the overarching idea with older children is to “balance media use with other healthy behaviors”. 5 For children younger than 18 months the use of screen media other than video-chatting, should be altogether avoided.

Raising healthy children is hard. Raising healthy children when the parent struggles with mental illness can be particularly challenging; it is of paramount importance for them to seek professional help, but to also solicit support for daily logistics from friends and family. The old African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is especially relevant when one or more members of the family are suffering with mental illness, thus actively requesting help, practicing self-care and knowing one’s limitations can improve the wellness of the entire family.

  2. J Fam Psychol. 2014 Aug;28(4):577-82. doi: 10.1037/fam0000014. Frequency of family meals and 6-11-year-old children’s social behaviors.Lora KR, Sisson SB, DeGrace BW, Morris AS
  3. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2017 Jan;49(1):67-72.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2016.09.002. Family Meals and Adolescent Emotional Well-Being: Findings From a National Study. Utter J1, Denny S, Peiris-John R, Moselen E, Dyson B, Clark T.

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