JLife’s resident clinical psychologist Dr Daniel Weisberg, Managing Director of CAYP Psychology, discusses how our children’s challenges can quickly improve.
Mood and anxiety problems, social challenges, and behavioural concerns are common amongst young people. Parents, teachers, and health professionals are regularly looking for ways to improve children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Before developing detailed plans or thinking about boosting resilience, tolerating distress,
or maximising self-esteem, we should draw our attention to three core areas of day-to-day life. If children can achieve success within these areas, the chances of them feeling so much better about themselves and the world around them substantially improves. These areas are sleep quality, diet, and exercise.
Let’s start with sleep
The strongest predictor of good mental health and wellbeing in children is sleep quality, not just quantity. Sleep recommendations often focus on a certain number of hours. It is true that too little sleep (fewer than eight hours) or too much sleep (more than 12 hours) is often associated with more severe difficulties associated with low mood. Poor sleep quantity is also associated with more time off school and poorer school achievement. However, sleep quality still significantly ‘outranks’ sleep quantity when predicting wellbeing.
There are several ways for children to maximise their sleep quality:
• Remove screens! Anything with a screen should be turned off at least one hour before bedtime. Phones, iPads, laptops and the TV should all be off. The light from these screens interferes with the body’s prodution of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy.
• Stick to a sleep schedule. Your child should
go to bed and wake up at a regular time, even on weekends.
• In the evening, avoid large meals, sugary foods (including cereals), caffeine and drinks other than water or non-caffeinated hot drinks. This can cause reflux as well as waking up in the night to go to the toilet.
• Try to have a relaxing bedtime routine. This can include a hot bath or shower, listening to calming music, or doing a calming activity, such as colouring, a jigsaw, or a more challenging dot-to-dot.
• Look at your child’s bedroom: A tidy room
is essential, remove anything that is stimulating or too distracting, make sure it is dark and a comfortable temperature.
Watch what they eat
Just having an increased awareness about the importance of a healthy diet can promote good mental health among young people. We’ve all heard that five portions of fruit and vegetables are recommended. This is based on empirical evidence. Those who eat fewer than two servings, and also those who eat more than eight servings, report lower feelings of wellbeing. Diets high
in saturated fat, processed foods, or refined carbohydrates are closely associated with mood difficulties. In contrast, nutrient-rich foods such as legumes (lentils, peas, chickpeas, and beans) and fish can have a significant, positive impact on mood and wellbeing. Increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake can help children’s brains develop and function, and they also help to decrease feelings of stress. There’s a reason they are called ‘super-foods’.
Some foods can trick our children’s brains into releasing chemicals that they may be lacking. For example, chocolate can make children feel great, and there may even be a brief improvement in their mood. But the effects are short-lasting, meaning that children will want more to feel good again and before you know it, the entire pack of cookies has disappeared.
When it comes to activity, I am referring to anything that gets your child’s body active and makes them a bit out of breath. It might be sports like netball, football, or gymnastics, it could be playing with friends or part of everyday life such as a brisk walk to school.
Exercise keeps our children’s hearts, bodies, and minds healthy and help to reduce feelings of low mood, anxiety and can even protect them from stress.
Regular activity helps your child to feel good about themselves, concentrate better, have a more positive outlook on life, build healthy bones, muscles, and joints, keep a healthy weight, and have a better quality night’s sleep. And most children show improved performance at school if they have a physically active lifestyle.
Sleep quality, diet, and exercise can help our children in so many ways. In this new year, particularly during such challenging and uncertain times, let’s maximise our children’s wellbeing by improving their sleep, diet, and exercise.