Mindful Parenting Tips: How to Help Your Child’s Mental Health

Anyone with kids in the modern world knows that being a parent—and, for that matter, being a kid—isn’t easy. Our young people are now growing up with many challenges that didn’t exist in previous generations, like the 24-7 frenzy of digital devices, unrealistic standards portrayed on social media, and mass shootings at schools. Other issues are longstanding, but that doesn’t make them any less harmful: bullying, peer pressure, substance abuse, and weight control issues or eating disorders, to name a few.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic further negatively impacted our youth. According to a 2023 report by the American Psychological Association (APA), trouble was brewing even prior to this. “In the 10 years leading up to the pandemic, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness—as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors—increased by about 40% among young people,” the report stated. But an unforeseen and unprecedented global pandemic piled on additional stressors, like isolation, disrupted school, and deaths of loved ones.

It’s no wonder the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory at the end of 2021 about the growing mental health crisis affecting our youth. As a parent, it breaks my heart to see some of the stats he cited—like that 1 in 3 high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

Clearly, it’s more important than ever that we parents help our kids navigate these challenges and promote positive habits for better mental health. While so much in this world isn’t under our control, that’s all the more reason to take the steps that are. Read on for some of the most impactful ways you can create a well-balanced lifestyle for your children. As a bonus, these mindful parenting tips will keep parents on a healthier track, too.

4 Mindful Parenting Tips for Optimizing Your Child’s Mental Health

Children Mental Health | Mindful Parenting Tips | BrainMD

Here are some key strategies to keep in mind for optimizing your child’s mental health—and why they’re crucial to implement:

Create Better Eating Habits

Eating habits are developed in childhood, so it’s important to establish healthier practices early on in life. For example, avoid eating with your family in front of a screen, as this often leads to excess calorie consumption. One study even linked it to higher cholesterol levels in preschoolers. Mindless eating can lead to weight gain, which has been its own health crisis among youth in recent decades.

Instead, try to sit down as a family for dinner every night, and set aside a designated (screen-free) place for it. This has numerous benefits, aside from making meals more mindful. Research has shown that family dinners assist in adolescents having fewer emotional and behavioral problems, as well as better mental health, improved interactions with others, and greater overall life satisfaction. It has also been linked to a lower risk of eating disorders, substance abuse, and childhood obesity while boosting academic performance.

Unfortunately, busy parents often succumb to many other unhealthy habits in the home when it comes to their kids’ diet. They may keep sugary beverages in the house, like soda, juice, and sports drinks, rather than reaching for healthier options like fruit-infused water or nutritious smoothies. Or they may try “food policing,” making kids clean their plates before they can leave the dinner table. Avoid these common pitfalls and make sure all foods you stock are healthy; that way, there’s no chance of a wrong choice, at least at home. And I have found that when you create those habits at home (and for their school lunches), kids learn how to make better choices all by themselves.

Encourage Exercise

Just like with diet, it’s up to us parents to model the best behavior for our kids and show them that a satisfying and healthy life is an active life. As screen time has risen over the decades, so have weight control issues among our youth—and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Involving your kids in exercise can get them outside for some fresh air, teach them teamwork and healthy competition through sports, or provide quality time for the whole family.

I was really fortunate that my daughter, Chloe, loved joining me for one of my favorite activities, Kenpo karate lessons. We went every week to the dojo, broke a sweat, learned useful skills for self-defense, and enjoyed priceless mother-daughter bonding—all while getting her in the routine of moving her body. We parents know that the old saying “Do as I say, not as I do” does not work with our kids. They do what we do. So set that good example and get them hooked on some kind of exercise regimen in their younger years. Their bodies will benefit all life long.

Maintain Parenting Balance

My husband, Dr. Daniel Amen, wrote the book on parenting—and now it’s a DVD, called New Skills for Frazzled Parents. He calls it “the instruction manual that should have come with your children,” and I have to agree. He offers many clear, simple, and effective techniques to help children become more adaptable, compassionate, responsible, and resourceful. After all, we may raise them, but eventually, we must send them out into the world and hope they do the right thing.

Here are just some of his parenting techniques that I have found helpful:

  • Get involved with your kid’s life so they know they can count on you.
  • Be open to learning, and understand that you and they will make mistakes.
  • Listen to their thoughts and opinions.
  • Be loving yet firm, setting appropriate rules and boundaries.
  • Prioritize quality time spent as a family on a regular basis.
  • Show compassion, warmth, care, and kindness.
  • Make sure to have fun together—you’ll boost physical and emotional well-being for the entire family.

Create a Bedtime Routine

We know that a lack of quality sleep can have all kinds of detrimental effects on kids and adults alike. But for young people, they can trigger more serious setbacks, since their brains are still developing. Lack of sleep may lead to depression, attention and learning problems, or poor impulse control and judgment. Unfortunately, we all know that kids can resist going to bed. What’s a parent to do?

Create a calming and healthy bedtime routine—and adhere to it. Take your time and understand that it may take time to stick. But be firm and consistent, and you’ll find it a much easier task. For example, you may have your children brush their teeth, and then put them to bed with a story. But you can also plan ahead in the hours leading up to bedtime. Avoid overly stimulating TV programs or reading material, heavy meals or snacks, and mobile devices. And, if desired, try a relaxing technique together, like breathing or meditation. Getting into such a practice can help with lowering anxiety around the clock, and it may start yet another healthy habit that carries into their later years.

Building Children’s Resilience

The good news is, that even as children’s mental health hits crisis mode, there are more resources and more awareness around mental health than ever before. For example, the APA has released a list of 10 additional ways to help build better-coping skills for our youth, and there are a lot of great recommendations. From encouraging social connections and volunteer work to teaching self-care and self-discovery, we can help young people adjust and bounce back in a fast-changing world.

I know firsthand how much pressure can be put upon us as parents. But it’s up to us to use mindful parenting skills to take some of the pressure off kids as they develop and mature. Remember that one day they’ll be in charge—and they’ll be parents themselves. Let’s make them as healthy, responsible, and resilient as possible to set the stage for future generations to come.

Tana Amen, BSN, RN