Supporting Kids Mental Health with Dr. Hazel Harrison
With the lockdown days ticking on and normal life seeming a distant memory, we wanted to check in with our community and offer support to parents trying to manage both their kid’s mental health as well as their own. Last week PUSH Coach, clinical psychologist and mother of two, Dr Hazel Harrison, gave us some tips and insights into how we can support our children’s mental health.
Being a parent under normal circumstances is hard, let alone in a global pandemic. There may have been times when you have felt overwhelmed, like your failing, or even that you’re a bad parent. It’s important to remember that these are extraordinary circumstances. As Dr Harrison reminds us:
“If it is hard, it’s not because you’re doing a bad job, it’s because it is hard”
According to an Oxford University study done during lockdown, mental health in children has worsened. This is unsurprising, but it is helpful to remember that mental health is a spectrum – we can move up and down – we won’t be stuck in one place forever and neither will our children.
There are small things we can do to improve the wellbeing of our children and ourselves. Wellbeing is an essential part of our day – but it’s key to remember that it’s not about being happy all the time. It can be many things, and it can take practice and time to find out what works for you and your family.
Most of us already know fundamentals of wellbeing such as eating well, exercise and good quality sleep. Dr Hazel suggests taking further control, looking to Martin Seligman’s model of PERMA for our wellbeing…
PERMA stands for:
- Positive Emotions
1. POSITIVE EMOTIONS
We all experience an array of emotions. Even those who seem to be at the flourishing or thriving end of the mental health spectrum experience sadness and anger. We need the negative to balance the positive.
As you can see, being positive does not just mean being ‘happy’.
As humans, we have evolved to form a negativity bias – keeping us alive and protecting us from danger. Our brains are experts in protecting us, remembering things that are dangerous so we don’t repeat them. At the moment, we are living through a global pandemic, and our children might be experiencing this negativity bias more than usual.
So what can we do?
Try and think consciously about different ways we can bring these positive emotions into our children’s day. Dr Hazel suggests having three positive emotions for every one negative emotion. Again these can be emotions such as amusement, awe, inspiration; the list is endless! We have to create these positive emotions consciously, they won’t necessarily evolve on their own.
Here are some ideas for boosting positive emotion at home:
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Start a gratitude photos folder.
- Have a nightly ritual for gratitude
- Schedule ‘playtime.’
- Start each day by thinking of 3 things you’re looking forward to most
- Exercise together
- Watch something funny together, funny videos on social media etc.
The great thing about recording gratitude is you get to go back and revisit it. Take off the pressure to be immediately happy – gratitude is something we can cultivate a practice for.
Engagement is all about how we use our attention. Bringing our mind into the present moment is a real skill. We all have access to our breath, which is a beneficial tool to bring us back to the present. During one of Dr Hazel’s workshops working with children, she found that one of the tools they enjoyed and benefited from was Starfish Breathing. It’s fun and playful, yet it involves this practice of mindfulness bringing our attention to the here and now.
Check out this short video for more info & details on Starfish Breathing!
There are many different breathing techniques and exercises out there, have fun with it, you need to find what works for you and your family.
To stay engaged, we need to do activities that challenge us and match our skill level.
Think about a time when you were so engrossed in what you were doing that you lost track of time, perhaps the mental chatter started to quieten down—this is flow state. Our children experience flow too, in the moments when they really lose themselves in something. These moments of flow top-up wellbeing.
Monitor screen time
Unfortunately, flow is not the same as TV time, even though you may feel fully immersed in the experience. There’s no doubt that these moments are helpful bites of escape, especially at the moment, but these don’t have that level of challenge that makes our brains switch on. Screen time has become an incremental part of our lives during the pandemic, it’s unsurprising that limiting screen time might feel like we are fighting a losing battle.
So what can we do?
Ideas for building engagement
- Help children to find their flow…
Try introducing new activities and hobbies into your days, spend time in nature
- Learn about mindfulness together
Practice tools such as Starfish Breathing
- Make gaming/screen time purposeful
It is better for children to engage with screens rather than passively scrolling. Social media is an inevitable part of our children’s lives, encouraging them to actively participate.
- Have screen-free time
Encourage your kids to spend time in nature, this might be harder than normal at the moment. Still, as much as possible get outside together, even if just for your daily walk
- Decrease multitasking
This is especially the case for adolescents who listen to music whilst scrolling on their phones, whilst watching TV… This can be quite stressful for the brain
Playing helps us relax and connect whilst also regulating negative emotions and enabling moments of flow.
Even if we have just a few people we feel we can turn to in a crisis, it can be incredibly beneficial. Although our children are unable to see their friends at the moment, we can help them understand relationships, which will still have numerous benefits.
- Use characters from books and films to talk about empathy and feelings.
- Practice the art of conversation, including listening, asking questions, and reflecting.
- Help the rupture and repair process. Life right now might feel really intense; we’re living on top of each other. There will likely be moments when we fall out. As parents, what is helpful to think about is we model how to mend ruptures. When things go wrong, we can model how we repair them and bring them back together.
Having a sense of purpose is incredibly important in being able to thrive. For children, this meaning can come from a sense of belonging. Many children find their sense of belonging in school, even just belonging to a class. Needless to say, this belonging may feel a bit lost right now.
So what do we do? Here are some ideas for building meaning
Connect to your values
- Try a calendar of kindness (visit Action for Happiness for ideas)
- Explore your family values to help with the feeling of belonging
- Model kindness – help your children to see how kindness can shape a sense of meaning.
- Connect with your community—Small interactions such as clapping for carers where you may have met new neighbours and people in your community—how can you keep some of these going?
We all need to feel like we’ve accomplished something – it helps us think we have a sense of purpose. This can also help us create a sense of balance when at the moment there’s not a lot we can control.
Sometimes these achievements will come from schoolwork, and other times they won’t. What is important is developing a growth mindset. We need to encourage our children to be willing to learn from challenges and failure. To do this, you can start by looking inwards. How do you respond when something goes wrong? How do you cope with failure? That will be quite influential to your young person.
Ideas for building achievement
- Change your language – make ‘yet’ a part of your daily vocabulary.
- Share your own failures – how much do you focus on your improvements instead of end goals?
- Try setting goals as a family and working towards them together – what achievements do you celebrate in your family?
- Focus attention on progress – remind your children that learning is a journey.
- Let your child teach you something – through this, you can normalise the achieving and failing that comes with learning.
So looking at these wellbeing elements, PERMA can be a great kind of wellbeing map to use throughout the week. Which areas can you as a family work on, and what are you already doing beautifully? Let us know in the comments what has been working for you!
And it’s important to keep in mind that you are a source of wellbeing for your children; so be kind to yourself first.
Remember – “If it’s hard it’s not because you’re doing a bad job, it is because it is hard” – Dr Hazel Harrison
Useful links for further advice and information: