How Can We Help Our Children To Navigate Uncertain Times?
We are living in unprecedented and uncertain times and the immediate and longer term impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing is of real and growing concern. In this article, Nutritionist Rachel Bartholomew and Psychotherapist Lisa Lawson, (both friends, colleagues and working mums) share their thoughts on helping children to navigate 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. Not being able to meet family and friends during lockdowns or periods of self-isolation 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. Time spent studying at home and not being with peers has brought mixed emotions, as well as trying to navigate their worlds. We have all been 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 is 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 relationships 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, stress and uncertainty 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 yourself is the first step to supporting your children’s mental wellbeing. As parents, guardians, teachers or carers, we are so much better placed to help children to navigate uncertain times when we are well nourished and rested ourselves. Yet what usually happens when our children need extra support is that our own self-care practises are put on hold. It may seem counter-intuitive to prioritise your own self-care when others around you need extra support but this is absolutely the most effective place to start. Keeping yourself well-nourished is a crucial part of self-care.
Start 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 high quality daily multi vitamin & mineral supplement or a nutritious home-made salad for lunch.
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, lacking concentration and less able to cope.
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 making sure that meals are well balanced – paying particular attention to including good quality protein and fat in each meal. Swapping a bowl of sugary cereal in the morning for an egg-based breakfast is a great start. There are key nutrients that can help to support blood sugar balance too. For older teens, a supplement containing chromium, cinnamon and alpha lipoic acid may be a useful additional support.
Provide brain-supportive fats
Omega-3 fats are essential for mental wellbeing and yet most children aren’t getting enough from their diets. Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are the best dietary sources of brain-supportive omega-3 fats EPA & DHA, yet sadly they often contain harmful pollutants such as heavy metals, toxins, plastic residues and PCBs. A daily omega-3 supplement that has been thoroughly purified to remove contaminants is generally agreed to be the best way to optimise omega-3 intake without the worry of adding harmful toxins into the diet. For this reason, a high quality omega-3 supplement is something that most children should be taking daily.
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.
Good sources of protein include grass fed meat & poultry, eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, tofu, yoghurt and cheese. It may be useful to add a scoop of protein to a morning smoothie (for yourself and your children) to help support protein intake at breakfast time.
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 very low in magnesium, as it is often lost in modern-day refining and processing methods. And magnesium tends to be used up rapidly during times of stress. It is important therefore to ensure children are regularly eating foods rich in magnesium such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, raw cacao and wholegrains. Extra magnesium can be supplemented in the form of magnesium glycinate – this is magnesium attached to an amino acid called glycine. Glycine has calming properties, so this is a great choice of magnesium supplement for anyone suffering from stress, worries, poor sleep or an overwhelmed nervous system as the glycine adds further benefits too.
Add nutrients and herbs to complement magnesium’s actions
Magnesium glycinate works well in supplement form when combined with synergistic nutrients and herbs. These include B vitamins, calcium, zinc and vitamins D3 & K2. In addition, the herb lemon balm has been shown to be very calming and safe for children from the age of 4 years old. Bluenesse ® lemon balm extract has been shown to support learning, memory and concentration at school.
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 stressful and uncertain, it can feel overwhelming to add anything more to your to-do list. And that’s the last thing we want you to feel. So perhaps the most important take away from this article is to 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 changing just one thing; perhaps start by planning in a bit of extra time for rest and relaxation, which actually 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.
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