Just today I gently reminded my young son that one of the most important jobs I have is to help him grow. That is why, I explain, as parents we pay attention to caring for his whole body as he grows, including his brain and his mental health. There’s a lot of talk about helping our kids succeed in life. But what we are talking less about is how to support our children’s mental health so that they will have the mental resiliencey to flourish.
I admit that the main reason mental health is on my radar as a parent to a young child is because we know he is at an increased risk for developing a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and bipolar disorder because both sides of the family have experience with a diagnosis. So we feel morally responsible for taking protective and proactive measures. Given that twenty percent of Americans experience a diagnosed mental illness, it appears that my family is not alone in navigating raising a child who is at increased risk.
When it comes to good brain hygiene or mental health basics, in addition to enough sleep and healthy foods, for us as a family three areas of intentional management with our child are key: quality relationships, regular exposure to the outdoors and nature, and limited exposure to addictive electronic games. We make family dinner and conversation a daily ritual, strengthening our emotional connections and bonds. We choose opportunities for education and recreation that regularly expose our child to the healing and renewing properties of nature. We talk to our child about the importance of setting limits on screen time and we closely monitor exposure to addictive digital games.
All of this is very intentional and we don’t know for sure it will work in the end. I’ve been following research that tracks the correlation between positive mental health and close family bonds, time in nature, and less time plugged into electronics. What I can tell you is that so far setting our focus as a family in these three areas of relationships, outdoors and nature and limits on electronics has helped to guide us on a path that feels life-giving. We don’t always meet our own expectations. Sometimes we solo off and eat snacks instead of a meal. Sometimes we stay inside on a beautiful day. Sometimes we let the usage of electronics go unchecked. But when these things happen, it doesn’t feel good. Instead, it feels very good when we honor our family sabbath on Sunday, electronic free day, and go to church, have a picnic outside and go for a walk in the woods.
Maybe what we are stumbling into is some sort of brain diet for kids. Or to say it another way, mental health hygiene for families with children. As I’ve come to embrace my family of origin’s own mental health history, sharing my stories in my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the silence about mental illness, family and church, I find myself thinking more about the future and less about the past. What I’ve learned is that sometimes severe mental illness can be prevented. This is a great desire growing within me and an audacious dream that I have: to some day prevent severe mental illness in children.
I believe that since we know so much more now about mental health, that we have a great opportunity to take what we have learned and apply this knowledge to help future generations so that there is less stigma and less suffering related to mental illness and more acceptance and compassion. When I talk to my son about how much we care for him, including his brain, I think he gets it. He wants to grow big and strong, so now he knows that includes his mental health, too.