• Teaching kids the fundamentals of self-care can help sustain mental well-being across the lifespan.
  • Lead by example to help kids learn best practices; be a role model for positive self-care habits like eating well and exercising.
  • You can improve children’s emotional intelligence by helping them build their emotional vocabulary.
  • Children can begin associating self-care practices with happiness and well-being at a young age.

About one in six kids in the United States struggle with a treatable mental health disorder, and only half of them get the professional help they need. As a parent or caregiver, you provide consistent support for your child. You help teach them how to navigate life’s challenges. An important part of this process is showing kids not only how to take care of their physical health, but also how to lay the foundations to promote long-lasting mental health and well-being.

One of the keys to sustainable mental well-being is proper self-care. Teaching your child self-care doesn’t have to be an explicit lesson. Often, the best way to build good habits in your children is to lead by example through the quality time you spend together. Here are five basics of proper self-care that help promote sustainable mental health and well-being in kids and adults alike.

The 5 Fundamentals of Self-Care for Kids

1) Nutrition: Eating a Balanced Diet

Research suggests that there’s truth in the old saying “We are what we eat.” A balanced, nutritious diet plays an important role in children’s mental health. In fact, research shows that a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables in kids is associated with higher well-being scores

In contrast, a diet high in saturated fats, processed foods, and refined sugars can have a negative effect on brain development. That’s not to say you can’t have ice cream as a treat, but continually offer items from the produce aisle as well. Make it a point to involve your child in planning meals that include more natural–and delicious–ingredients. At a young age they can start making a positive association between eating well and feeling well. Those healthy habits can last a lifetime.

2) Emotions: Understanding What They’re Feeling and Why

Your emotional intelligence, commonly referred to as your EI or EQ, is just as important as your intelligence quotient, or IQ. Emotional intelligence can help empower children to recognize for themselves when they’re struggling. When a child has the tools to be aware of what they’re feeling and identify the “why” behind any emotion, from happy to sad, they increase their ability to manage and regulate their emotions in the future. 

You can help teach kids to recognize and put words to what they’re feeling. Help them build their emotional vocabulary. Show them that it’s safe to turn to you for support. You may not have all the answers to their questions, but together you can seek out mental health resources that will help you better understand the issue.

3) Physical Activity: It’s Important AND It Can Be Fun

Regular exercise has a positive effect on mood and behavior and can also help to manage depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. The word “exercise” can conjure up a mental picture of treadmills, ellipticals, and weight machines. While a fitness routine is great for adults, it’s usually not engaging for children long-term. More often, children are more engaged with exercise when it comes in the form of team sports, dance lessons, playing outside with friends, or riding a bike, skateboard, or scooter. 

Encourage your child to explore ways to exercise that are fun for them so that it’s not necessarily “exercise,” but play-time instead. Give kids eclectic opportunities to explore enjoyable self-care activities that get their bodies moving. They may not start practicing yoga, but they could find that flying a kite lowers their stress levels. 

4) Personal Expression: Utilizing Creative Outlets

Self-expression is one of the cornerstones of self-care. Finding creative outlets for your child to express themselves can help boost their motivation, increase their ability to concentrate, and produce a stronger sense of self-worth.

Encourage your child to explore their creative side. Dancing can be a great creative avenue that combines both expression and exercise. Other activities like writing, drawing, painting, molding clay, music, or even giving your child the ability to decide what they wear (within reason) are also great forms of positive self-expression.

5) Spending Time Outdoors: Connecting with Nature and Others

Research shows that spending time outdoors has a positive effect on mental and physical health by providing stress relief, social interaction, and an opportunity for physical activity. Take the time to separate your kids from their device or limit their screen time so that they can connect with nature. You could take a long walk together, play in the backyard, or take a family trip to your favorite park. An abiding love for nature can protect kids from future stressors.

Ultimately, the same foundations of self-care to encourage during child development apply to grownup family members as well. Everyone struggles with keeping all the bases covered and making sure they’re taking care of themselves in the best way possible. Practicing mindful self-care can help you sustain and manage your mental health and wellness, while also giving you the tools to empower the ones you love to do the same. 

*Gretchen Cohen is a staff writer and performs outreach for Jumo Health.*