Updated: Dec 6, 2022
We talked about the importance of nutrition, optimal digestion, blood sugar balance and gut health for a healthy happy mood and behavior in Nutritional Considerations for Children with Behavioral Issues.
Now let's dive into 11 lifestyle considerations to better support your child's mental and behavioral health.
1) Maintain routines and a daily schedule
The body loves cycles and routines. A schedule not only helps the body to function optimally but it’s also very calming for the brain. Here are a couple ways to support a routine for your child:
Try to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner around the same time every day. The body begins to produce digestive juices in preparation for food.
Try to set bedtime around the same time every night and wake up to start the day around the same time every morning. This helps to set a balanced circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle.
Set up a nightly and bedtime routine so children know what is to be expected and they can begin to calm themselves for sleep. Do they help with the dishes after dinner? Do they finish up homework? Do they help pack lunch for the next day? What time do they start to wash up? Do they get to pick a book to read in bed with you or by themselves before lights go out? Be consistent.
Schedule in regular, quality family time. This is so important for a child's sense of belonging and safety and gives them something positive to look forward to on a regular basis. This time sets you up to be proactive in giving your child the positive attention they truly crave, builds a foundation of a stable environment and can decrease negative attention seeking behavior.
2) Screen time
If your child is moody, restless and/or quick to anger. Pay attention to how much time their spending on their iPhone, iPad or tablet. In today’s high-tech world, we need to be aware of what excessive screen time is doing to our children’s emotional well-being. Anxiety and depression in young people is on the rise and for many children, if not all, too much screen time exacerbates symptoms.
These symptoms can mimic a behavioral disorder, so before making diagnoses, there needs to be time spent on ruling out if screen time is influencing your child’s mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that the average child spends seven hours a day looking at a screen, be it a cell phone, computer, TV or other electronic device.
Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use. Research has linked excessive screen time to school problems, aggression and other behavioral issues. The “sensory overload” causes kids to have poor focus and depletes their mental energy, which often leads to anger and explosive behavior. Kids become overstimulated and “revved up,” and they may have a difficult time managing stress and regulating their mood.
How do you know if your child is overdoing screen time? Your child may exhibit these symptoms:
Excessive tantrums, mood swings
Low frustration tolerance
Poor short-term memory
Your child’s symptoms are causing major problems in school, at home or with peers.
Your child’s symptoms improve after 3-4 weeks of strict removal of electronics.
Symptoms return with the re-introduction of the electronics.
If you’re wondering whether to limit your child’s screen time, try it out for a few weeks and see if you notice any differences in your child’s mood. It can be difficult to resist screens in today’s hectic world, but isn’t it worth it if your child is calmer, happier, more focused and better able to handle stress?
We all know the world has changed drastically in the last few decades; however human needs have not changed. Try to have off-screen activities readily available for children – whether that be games, puzzles, science experiments, books, building materials, crafts or drawing utensils, etc. – allow your child space to be creative without the wifi.
3) Encourage regular physical activity to improve mood and reduce stress
Movement is so incredibly important for balanced mood and stress reduction. Our bodies are designed to move. If we don’t move enough and sit too much, we are at greater risk of chronic disease. A stagnant body creates a stagnant mind, and a stagnant mind creates many other emotions – anger, depression, anxiety, panic, shame, guilt, etc. Just like cycles and routines – our body’s love movement.
Movement keeps the blood pumping, lymphatic system flowing and the mind steady. So, try to create relay courses or scavenger hunts, get your kids into sports, tai chi, yoga, swimming, dance, trampolining, running, skating, biking, hiking, playground activities, set play dates, family walks after dinner, include them in home improvements or lawn care, use chalk to create make believe streets, towns or just hopscotch, play catch, etc. Get them off the couch and preferably into fresh air.
Low vitamin D levels are linked to behavior disorders, depression and anxiety – so try to get your kids out in the sun as often as possible. Vitamin D is great for the immune system, healthy bones and teeth and of course mood!
Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. Exposure to sunlight increases the brain’s release of serotonin. Serotonin is associated with boosting mood, promotes calmness and supports focus. At night, darker lighting triggers the brain to make melatonin – which is responsible for supporting sleep.
Without enough sun exposure, serotonin levels can dip. Low levels of serotonin are associated with a higher risk of major depression. One of the main treatments for depression throughout the winter is light therapy, also known as phototherapy. You can get a light therapy box to have at home. The light from the box mimics natural sunlight that stimulates the brain to make serotonin and reduces excess melatonin. Getting anywhere from 15-30 minutes of direct sunlight on your arms, hands and face at LEAST 2-3 times a week can even be helpful.
We talked about the importance of making family time a priority, but children also need to have a community. They need to learn how to share with others, communicate well, build their group of trusted allies and really just play. A sense of belonging is a basic human necessity. Can you plan play dates, meet other families at the park, have your child join a group or team whether that be for art, dance, music, karate or baseball?
6) Attention – Good vs Bad
A 3-year-old appears happy to have a new little one in the house, but the sudden increase in temper tantrums tells a different story. A ten-year-old feels resentful of her older sister's academic success and the praise she receives for it and begins misbehaving, slamming doors and screaming at her parents.
These are examples of attention seeking behavior. It's normal for children to need attention and approval, and it's equally appropriate for parents to give them the attention they want. However, attention-seeking becomes a problem when it happens all the time, or if your child’s attention-seeking behavior causes trouble at school or with their peers.
Sometimes children learn that the easiest way to get their parents to focus on them is to provoke them by misbehaving, which can be hard to break.
If you find that your child is acting out in disruptive ways to get your undivided attention, it’s important to understand the causes behind a kid’s need for attention and address their behavior in positive, constructive ways. Here are some do’s and don’ts:
Do Communicate Clearly to your child and ask them to communicate clearly to you.
If your child is acting up – take the time to connect with them. Come down to their level and look them in the eyes. Ask them – what is making you upset right now? What happened to make you upset? Ask them to please use their words so you can better understand what happened and better help them.
Ask your child if they know why their behavior is wrong, and if they don't, explain it clearly to them. For example, tell them how much you love them, but this behavior isn’t helping you understand what they need.
Do Focus on the Positive
Instead of waiting for children to have tantrums to pay attention to them, acknowledge them when they are behaving well, and offer positive attention when it happens. Stay alert when your child behaves in a positive way and let them know that you notice them: I like how you're working so hard on your artwork – you’re doing very well … and then move on. Being as descriptive and specific as possible in your praise allows the child to know exactly what behavior they should replicate.
Do Pay Attention Before They Demand It
Parents are understandably tired after a busy day of work and other responsibilities, but so are children. Take 15 minutes to sit with your child and focus on them without any distractions. Put down the phones, take away the tablets and give your little one your undivided attention. Play board games or read a book together. The whole family doesn't need to be involved - one on one time is good. It's been shown that involved parents raise children with positive self-esteem. Your child will bask in your parental attention, and that can help to calm their negative attention-seeking behavior.
Don't Be Unpredictable
Sometimes you may find it easier to give in to your child's negative behaviors and give them the attention they are demanding. However, it's better if you can react the same way each time they misbehave. Even if your child acting out is an uncomfortable situation for you, such as while eating in a restaurant or visiting friends, stay calm and consistent.
Consistency is key to behavior modification. If, for example, your child is sent to time out only once in a while when they are using negative attention-seeking behavior, they won't take the consequence seriously. Children need predictable outcomes to respond to scolding or other consequences. What are your rules? Stick to them.
The key to changing your child's behavior begins with how you communicate with them, how you teach them to communicate their feelings to you in positive ways and then continues with your consistency.
7) Environmental toxins
We know it’s important to be mindful of the ingredients not only in your child’s foods (artificial coloring, MSG, PUFA oils, etc.) but also in personal care and home products.
Children are continuously growing and developing but generally have very little control over their environment. So, it’s up to caregiver’s to be mindful of dietary and environmental toxins or triggers along with suggestions on how to avoid or limit exposure to these triggers. See the attached handout for a list of ingredients to look out for and/or use the EWG Healthy Living app for extra support.
8) Stress management practices and Mindfulness
Stress affects children just as much as it affects adults. For this reason, it’s very important to teach children stress management skills so you can set the stage for how your child manages stress throughout their lives. Knowing how to prioritize, manage time, and rest are all fundamental skills in the prevention of stress. If children don’t learn these skills, they may become overwhelmed. It’s important to teach them strategies to help them deal with stressful situations. This way, they’ll know how to cope with their emotions and problems.
A typical child doesn’t quite understand that what they’re dealing with is stress. They just know they feel sad, exhausted, angry, or anxious. Experiencing stress may be new to them and they most likely don’t know what to do with their emotions. This is why it’s important to help them understand what stress is, what causes it, and how to manage it. Does your child know how to relax, stop and breath?
Encourage them to participate in more aerobic activities that’ll allow them to let off steam. For many children, it’s a lot easier to talk about their problems in active situations, especially those that favor relaxation. Non-competitive and creative activities, a walk through the neighborhood, or even helping to make homemade protein balls are great ways to relieve stress.
But also encourage activities that promote relaxation. Studies show that yoga, breathing techniques and mindfulness meditation all help children manage stress and anxiety and are fabulous techniques to teach your children at a young age. Being more aware of themselves and how their body responds to a certain stimuli or environment is very empowering for children. When they can use their words to express to you how they are feeling and what made them feel that way can help you offer ways to make it better.
A couple of my favorite activities:
A simple way to quiet your child’s mind is to teach them to pay attention to their breathing. Encourage them to close their eyes and count breaths. Tell them to think “one” when they inhale and “two” when they exhale. Teach them to return to counting when their mind wanders. The exercise shouldn’t change their breathing. Instead, it should be about helping them become more aware of their breaths in general and how their body and lungs feel when they're mindful.
Cool the Soup
“Cool the soup” is another breathing exercise that will help your child become more aware of their bodily sensations. Tell your child to breathe in through their nose like they're smelling soup. Then, tell them to blow out through their mouth, like they're cooling the bowl of soup. Practice this often when your child is calm. Then, when they're angry or anxious, remind them to become more mindful by saying, “Cool the soup.”
Yoga is a great way to increase your child’s awareness of the connection between their mind and their body. Kid-friendly yoga poses can help them become more mindful.
Sign your child up for a yoga class or look for kid-friendly yoga videos to practice at home. You can practice yoga together as well and incorporate it into your daily routine. Like other mindfulness practices, yoga will teach your child coping skills, help them to connect with their body, their breathing, and that silence is comfortable.
The more kids are able to be present in the moment, the better they'll be at self-regulation. Mindfulness should be an ongoing practice. Take time every day to practice mindfulness skills with your child. When you make it a priority in your life, your child will see that it’s important to be in tune with the present and see stress management as a valuable skill.
9) Setting a Calming Home Environment
Utilize calming techniques such as aromatherapy, art or music therapy around the house. Having a calming home base is the ultimate foundation for a child’s wellness. The home plays a significant role in our mental health. Our mood and the way we feel in a space has a lot to do with our surroundings. When your home doesn’t have a calming energy and relaxing ambiance, it can be difficult to settle in and relax. Research actually shows that clutter has a profound effect on your overall mental health. The mind sees clutter as ‘disease’.
Here are some ways to make your home a calm space:
1. Add Plants to Improve Oxygen Quality
Oxygen quality affects your mental health. When you’re breathing stale, dirty, polluted air, your brain isn’t receiving the quality oxygen it needs to function properly. Plants purify the air and adding them to your home is an effective way to create a calm space.
2. Open the Windows and Embrace Natural Lighting
A simple way to feel better in your home is to embrace the wonderful elements of the earth. Hang light, breezy fabric from your windows and get in the habit of opening them up every morning to let the natural light fill your calm space. This can support feelings of being alive and present, inspired and happy when at home.
3. Turn on a Himalayan Salt Lamp
Another fabulous way to clean the air in your home is with Himalayan Salt Lamps. They also add a calming ambiance and enhanced aesthetics into the space which can help the family relax.
4. Declutter and Clean
Studies have shown that a cluttered living space can have a drastic effect on your mental health. So, it’s time to declutter. Set aside the time to get rid of everything your family hasn’t touched in the past year – from closets to storage, decor items, furniture, kitchen cabinets, etc. Less is more, especially when you’re trying to create a calm space in your home.
5. Diffuse the Best Essential Oils
Essential oils are amazingly effective in calming nerves and setting an environment. You just need an essential oil diffuser and essential oils that support a calm state of mind. Look for lavender, jasmine, chamomile, rose, ylang ylang, frankincense, clary sage, geranium, lemon balm, rosemary, valerian, eucalyptus.
6. Add Trickling Fountains for Serenity
Water has been linked to providing soothing benefits for your mind and spirit. Place some indoor fountains throughout your home and see how they improve your family's mood moving forward.
7. Add Comfy Elements
Big comfy pillows, fluffy throw pillows, blankets, a massive bean bag, etc. Whatever makes you feel comfortable and cozy, add it into your calm space.
10) Optimize sleep hygiene
Sleep is absolutely essential to healthy cognitive function and balanced mood. Having a bedtime routine can help your child successfully get there. With busy extracurricular schedules, schoolwork and family routines, it can be difficult for your child to get the recommended amount of sleep per night. Try a few of the suggestions below:
Electronics and Stimulants
Try to use an actual alarm clock rather than a phone for waking in the morning. Be careful with alarm clock placement. If your child stares at the clock, waiting and hoping to fall asleep, turn the clock’s face away from them.
Avoid feeding your child anything with caffeine or lots of sugar (such as chocolate, soda, energy drinks, tea, or coffee) in the late afternoon and evening. Caffeine can cause nighttime awakenings and shallow sleep.
Limit your child’s screen time in the evenings, and power down all devices at least one hour before bedtime.
Limit or avoid any stimulating activities right before bedtime. This includes physical exercise and late-night snacking.
Keep televisions, computers, video game consoles, tablets, and cell phones out of your child’s bedroom.
If your child wakes up in the middle of the night, do not allow them to play with electronic devices. The light from the devices disrupts normal sleep patterns and decreases the likelihood that your child will fall back asleep.
Ensure that your child’s bedroom is quiet, cool, and comfortable.
Teach your child to use their bed only for sleeping. Lying in bed while doing other activities (such as using a tablet or watching TV) makes it difficult for children to associate their bed with sleep.
Aim to put your child to sleep while they are drowsy but still awake. Allowing children to fall asleep in places other than their beds teaches them to associate sleep with those places rather than their beds.
Give your young child a security object like a stuffed animal or soft blanket. Ask them to get this object when transitioning to bedtime. Security objects help children feel safe when a parent or primary caregiver isn’t in the room.
For preschoolers and school-age children, incorporate naps into their daily routine. Daytime napping can increase attention span and energy levels in younger children. It can also help your child get the total amount of sleep they need per day if they aren’t getting enough rest at night.
Avoid putting your child down for a nap in the late afternoon or evening. Napping late in the day is more likely to interfere with sleep during the night.
Put your child to bed and wake your child up at the same times every day, even on the weekends. Staying up too late and sleeping late on the weekends can throw off a child’s sleep schedule for several days.
Create a bedtime routine. This can include activities like taking a bath, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, listening to calming music, and reading a book.
Maintain a sleep diary. Track naps, bedtimes, wake times, and nighttime behaviors to find patterns that may be disrupting sleep. This will help you both work on particular problems when sleep is not going well.
If your child is having trouble relaxing before bed, walk them through deep breathing exercises or a guided meditation. For example, help them picture themselves relaxing on a beach.
Keep bedtime check-ins brief. The main purpose is to let your child know you are there and that they are safe. The shorter and less stimulating the bedtime check-in, the more likely your child will relax and rest soundly for the night.
Encourage at least one hour of physical activity during the day. Exercising earlier in the day can help children feel energetic, awake, and focused. Daytime exercise also helps set up the body to fall asleep faster and stay asleep at night. However, try to have more calming activities an hour or so prior to bed.
11) Monitor stress response and anxiety levels
We know that life gets busy – however, being mindful and tracking / monitoring your child’s stress responses and anxiety levels can give you great insight into what they need the most support and guidance with.
When they act out – are they tired, did they consume a certain food that may have caused some mental distress (sugar, food coloring, pasta), were they around a certain person, did they get frustrated with their own ability? Whatever the case may be – starting a journal can be a great way to better helping your child in the long run.
Here are some handouts for extra support: