We are living in unprecedented and uncertain times and the immediate and longer term impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing is a real concern. In this timely article, Nutritionist Rachel Bartholomew and Psychotherapist Lisa Lawson, (both friends, colleagues and working mums) have come together to share their thoughts on helping children to navigate these uncertain times. And whilst their insights are rooted in different therapeutic backgrounds, it is evident that key messages and values are shared, perhaps most strikingly, that helping your children starts with helping yourself first.
“Helping ourselves is key, as too is finding our own unique family way to face these unique challenges, as this creates togetherness”
The psychological effects of living alongside the Covid-19 pandemic have been impactive for us all, especially with a 3rd lock down. Not being able to meet family and friends has created for many, a feeling that our worlds have shut down - affecting the natural cycle of how we evolve as a person through social interactions. This can lead to feeling anxious and stressed - not feeling safe to trust others with our emotions and not feeling able to help others with theirs, causing disconnectedness.
Helping ourselves is key - in the event of an emergency on a flight, we are told to put on our own breathing masks first before assisting others. By taking 10 minutes each day just for ourselves, transforms our well-being and interactions with others. Journaling about things which make us feel good - and what is getting in the way, creates space and agency to make a healthier attachment with ourselves and with our family too.
Many children and young people have experienced loss; not experienced endings, beginnings and celebrations - creating feelings of uncertainty, frustration and unhappiness. Studying at home and not being with peers has brought mixed emotions, as well as trying to navigate their worlds. We are all grateful for virtual connections; however, it is not the same as physically being in each other’s presence.
So what can we do to help?
1 Put your own oxygen mask on first - managing our own stress levels creates calm, child-focused parenting:
✔ Actively slowing down and paying attention to our core feelings helps us become attuned to what we need moment-to-moment and living now.
✔ Exercising for just 10 minutes each day; a mindful walk in nature, run, yoga or stretching and taking time afterwards to sit and listen to our breath - lowers our autonomic nervous system allowing a feeling of continual relaxation throughout the day. Evidence-based NICE guidelines indicate that taking these steps is equivalent to taking a low dose of anti-depressants.
✔ Structure, schedule and routine helps us feel empowered. If we cannot predict our future, we can feel out of control. Create a work-life balance, focusing purely on work/task then step away for self-care, this is important for our whole well-being. And remember that self-care is individual; for one person that might be a yoga session, for another it may be listening to a favourite piece of music or an uplifting podcast. Choose what’s right for you.
2. Human beings need love, attachment, closeness, taking care of others and being taken care of. This is achieved by expressing both positive and negative emotions, allowing us to live authentically with acceptance. Providing these ingredients for ourselves and our children, creates the conditions for living a happy healthy life:
✔ Communicating in terms of, “I feel this / I feel that” helps to promote real connections. This changes our physiology as the limbic part of our brain lights up to what we need, being able to articulate complex feelings, to be listened to and understood. This allows us to feel more focused, conscious and alive.
✔ Finding your unique family way to facing these challenges creates togetherness, being mindful of not comparing yourselves to others. Feel powerful connections in simple experiences and celebrate small achievements.
✔ Structure to each day creates predictability, safety and security. As a family, create some daily routines and perhaps choose some experiences/tasks which can be shared. This can be re-visited, promoting discussions around healthy boundaries and respect – creating alive family dynamics.
✔ Taking the time to notice our loved ones; asking how they are lets them know that we notice them. Whatever they share, try to not fix, just listen - as this can lead to feeling unaccepted as they are. Asking if they need help provides an opportunity to discuss what may be distressing - promoting secure attachments.
✔ When you experience stress with work or schoolwork, it is important to take a step back and think about how you can create a healthier work/play balance. Our brain functions are shaped by our relationship with ourselves and others, so time to recuperate and heal is important - healing happens in relationships.
✔ Early intervention is key, promoting agency, which helps with resilience in our children. Sharing with our children ways to get help if and when needed gives them the confidence to contact mental health charities, Young Minds and Shout text services, which are free.
✔ And finally, remember, you are doing a great job and none of us are perfect, thank goodness! We are all human and to be a healthy human being is to experience and accept the diversity of our feelings at this unique time.
“Understanding that there are steps you can take to help is a useful coping mechanism in itself, it helps us to feel more empowered amid heightened uncertainty”
The foods we choose to eat (or not to eat) can influence our mental wellbeing and that’s particularly true for children who are not only coping with worry, anxiety and stress but also with the physiological demands of growth, development and moving through transitional changes such as adolescence, with increased energy demands and hormonal ups and downs. Understanding that there are steps you can take to help is a useful coping mechanism in itself, it helps us to feel more empowered amid heightened uncertainty, and this is true for children too, who will feel better able to cope with stress if they feel they are taking positive steps in the right direction, no matter how small they may seem.
So what can you do to help?
Taking care of ourselves is the foundation for supporting our children’s mental wellbeing; we are so much better placed to help them to navigate these uncertain times when we are well nourished and rested ourselves. Yet when we feel we are juggling lots of different roles, like now, with home schooling added into the mix, it’s often our own self-care that is dropped first. Perhaps start small now, from whatever your current baseline is, by adding one small nutritious action into each day; perhaps that’s starting a new habit of a daily omega-3 supplement, a homemade turmeric latte before bed, a nutritious salad for lunch or a mood-boosting smoothie for breakfast.
Balance blood sugar
The unfortunate thing about stress is that the immediate knee-jerk coping strategies are often the least helpful; a bar of chocolate or a packet of sweets may feel like the answer for a child needing a pick-me-up in the moment, but is only adding to the problem if this is the default every time. Children can soon end up on a blood sugar rollercoaster, left feeling tired, irritable, tearful and less able to cope with another day of online learning as concentration levels start to plummet. From a nutritional perspective, making dietary changes to support blood sugar balance is a helpful starting point for supporting children’s mental wellbeing. Starting steps include reducing sugary drinks and snacks, ensuring meals are structured throughout the day (evening meal before 7pm) and that each meal is well balanced with enough good quality protein and fat. Swapping a bowl of cereal in the morning for an egg-based breakfast instead is a great start.
Provide brain-supportive fats
Omega-3 fats are essential for mental wellbeing. Nuts, seeds (and their oils) and oily fish such as salmon and mackerel provide the best sources of brain-supportive omega-3 fats, yet they are often lacking in children’s diets. And whilst oily fish may well be the best dietary source of omega-3, sadly it often contains harmful pollutants such as heavy metals, toxins, plastic residues and PCBs, hence why the government has set maximum weekly intake levels, especially for pregnant women. A daily omega-3 supplement that has been purified to remove contaminants may provide useful additional support without the worry of adding toxins into the diet.
Good quality protein with each meal
Protein is not only important for blood sugar balance, it helps to support growth and development and provides building blocks for hormones and neurotransmitters that help to support balanced mood and restful sleep. Meat, chicken, eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, tofu, yoghurt and cheese all provide good quality protein.
Magnesium is often nicknamed nature’s tranquiliser which gives some clue as to its involvement in supporting the nervous system. It is essential for energy production, blood sugar balance, mood, calm and for supporting a balanced stress response. Western diets tend to be low in magnesium, as it is often lost in modern-day refining and processing methods. Ensure children are regularly eating foods rich in magnesium such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, raw cacao and wholegrains. For older children (over the age of 8), a supplement containing magnesium glycinate in powder form with supportive nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin C and the calming amino acid L-theanine, may be a useful support during particularly stressful times.
Water, water, water
And finally, it’s helpful to encourage a good habit of filling up a water bottle (glass or metal, not plastic) in the morning for yourself and your children to keep on your desks and sip throughout the day. Staying optimally hydrated helps to support concentration and energy levels, and reduces the likelihood of reaching for sugary drinks instead.
Start small – do one thing differently
When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, there are so many positive actions you can take, no matter what age you are. Yet when life already feels stretched, juggling so many different roles as we all are right now, it can feel overwhelming to feel like you need to add more to your to-do list. And that’s the last thing we want you to feel. Perhaps think of this article as a resource bank of possible ideas rather than a to-do list. Our gentle suggestion would be to start small and try just changing one thing; perhaps a bit of extra time for rest and relaxation; and that means doing less not more. Take care and stay well x
About Lisa Lawson BA (Hons)
Lisa is a Psychotherapist working in private practice and is passionate about promoting and supporting healthy family relationships.
About Rachel Bartholomew BA (Hons), Dip ION, mBANT, CNHC, GHW
Rachel is a Nutritional Therapist & Health Writer with a special interest in Functional and Lifestyle Medicine. She combines her own private practice in Lancashire with freelance health writing, which includes regularly creating content for Nutri Advanced’s extensive library of educational resources.