Six ways to help children's mental health during the pandemic including creative activities and mindfulness
This week is Children's Mental Health Week but the impact the pandemic's restrictions are having on young people mean it's now more important than ever to ensure we are looking after the mental well being of children and teenagers.
But what can families do to help lift low moods, anxiety and address worries? We share some expert suggestions...
1. Find an emoji that fits!
A lack of 'normal' routine and a prolonged absence from school and friends is undoubtedly going to impact on children's mental health and mood, but it can often be hard for them to articulate exactly how they're feeling.
Former primary school teacher Laura Steele from education experts PlanBee suggests exploring thoughts and feelings using emojis as prompts can often be a successful way of getting children to open up.
Picking out different emojis youngsters are familiar with may encourage them to talk about a range of different feelings or particular instances when they may been left feeling a certain way. These free emoji faces cards here from PlanBee may even help you start a discussion with your child. You could also challenge your child to design their own emoji sheets - creating their own versions with faces they feel apply most to them.
2. Use calming techniques for difficult days
Anger and frustration can be difficult emotions for anyone to deal with but helping children practice breathing techniques or other calming activities do have their benefits.
There are plenty of tips online to show children how to take calming deep breaths but this can often successfully and simply be done with a string of eight to 10 beads or pasta shells where children are able to slide a bead along the string for every deep focussed breath they take.
Online classes such as Cosmic Kids Yoga are also great for getting youngsters to slow down and enjoy activities to calm the mind and they often discuss feelings too. Hundreds of videos can be found online on YouTube, with varying themes depending on what might appeal most to your offspring, there is also an app to download for ease as well.
3. Eat well
We've all snacked and nibbled our way through lockdown days as we spend more time indoors - but managing a child's diet and consumption of sugary snacks can often have a big impact on their mood and subsequent behaviour. Where possible limit the amount of sugary snacks they are eating and replace them with fruit or vegetable and pay particular attention to what they snack on or eat closest to bedtime.
If you're looking for an activity to enjoy together, preparing healthy snacks with your child and getting them involved in some food preparation may also help with keeping them busy whilst encouraging them to try new flavours.
The NHS Change4Life website has lots of lockdown lunch ideas and food swap suggestions if you're keen to introduce more healthy snacking into your family's diet. Click here to find out more.
4. Get outside
This third lockdown has perhaps been the most difficult for everyone's mental health, made worse by the darker days and wintery weather. Whilst schools aren't likely to return for some weeks yet, the evenings are now getting visibly lighter and allowing a little more time at the end of a homeschool day to get outside before thoughts turn to dinner and bedtime.
Even during a rainy week try and help children get a small amount of fresh air where possible even if this is just a quick walk around the block during a break or run around the garden at the end of the day.
If they're reluctant to leave the house, and are bored with the same walks or scooter routes, perhaps use some nature-related activities to persuade them? Scavenger hunts can be easy to arrange and there are lots of ideas online, alternatively the National Trust's '50 things to do before you're 11 and 3/4' may provide some fresh inspiration.
Suggestions for outdoor activities include den building, welly wandering, snail races, wild art, going barefoot, hunting for fossils, making friends with a bug and climbing a hill. You can view the full lists here if you're in need of fresh help to make your 'daily walk' enjoyable.
Older children may also enjoy fresh exercise challenges with an element of competition against themselves. The Couch to 5K app could be a good place to start if looking for a new skill to encourage them from the house during lockdown.
5. Screen time
Screen time and the hours spent starting into devices is often a concern most parents have at one time or another, but in the midst of a third lockdown many of the rules and limits in place during normal times have been relaxed to make life less pressurised for everyone.
Elizabeth Tweedale, CEO and co-founder of Cypher which teaches children computer coding, said rather than banning screen time it is beneficial to encourage children to use it in very worthwhile ways that may actually benefit their mental health.
Finding creative activities to enjoy such as virtual art lessons, trying online exercise or keeping in touch with friends and family are all ways in which screens can be used to improve mental well being.
Elizabeth explained: "Loneliness is considered to be a key risk factor of lockdown for the mental health and wellbeing of children. With a lack of physical social interaction, communicative screen time is vital for children to engage with each other. Use screens to re-create this and factor into your homeschooling routine, schedule virtual playdates and facetimes with family members.
"Over the past few months, communicative screen time has evolved, not only are children chatting with friends, but they are now communicating and engaging with them in different ways, such as online exercise classes and craft sessions."
Elizabeth's advice includes monitoring online videos children may be watching alone, encouraging and organising communication through screens and ensuring that any passive screen time watching television is closed 30 minutes before bed to still allow for reading or bedtime stories.
6. Get creative!
The theme of this year's Children’s Mental Health Week is Express Yourself. This is encouraging parents, carers and families to find ways to share feelings, thoughts and ideas through creative activities such as art, music, dance or writing.
Embarking on activities that make you and your children feel good are going to be really helpful in lifting low moods, relieving anxiety or worries, improving well being and can often consequently lead to other open conversations about how everyone is feeling on a particular day.
The week's official website www.childrensmentalhealthweek.org.uk has lot of resources and creative suggestions to appeal to children of all ages, both primary and secondary, and they can all be adapted to be enjoyed at home, outside or in the classroom if you are responsible for children still attending school or nursery.
But parents and carers will also know their children best when it comes to finding activities to make them feel happy and relaxed or as a beneficial distraction from the grind of the pandemic's restrictions. Baking, crafts, LEGO building, art tutorials, gardening, reading or watching a favourite film together can all be useful ways to turn off thoughts of lockdown and relieve anxiety. Alternatively your children might benefit from a bike ride, enjoy kicking a football in the park or climbing trees in the woods - the choices are endless!
If you're in need of further support in Kent...
Information about services available to support parents, carers and children with a range of mental health issues can be found on a dedicated mental health and wellbeing area of KCC’s website www.kent.gov.uk. The site was created earlier this year by professionals in Kent and Medway to signpost residents to information and help during the Covid-19 outbreak.
The site includes details of HeadStart Kent’s two websites - the Kent Resilience Hub, which offers support and advice for parents and carers, and the MoodSpark website, which was designed with and for children and young people in Kent and is aimed at 10 to 16-year-olds.
Kooth is also available for young people to get advice and chat to a qualified counsellor.
If you are worried about your child and need urgent help you can also call the Kent and Medway Single Point of Access for Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing on 0800 011 3747 to get the right support.
For those aged 14 plus, the Release the Pressure text service can help – just text ‘Kent’ to 85258 or phone 0800 107 0160 for free confidential support at any time from trained counsellors.