Working with teenagers and their mental health struggles can sometimes feel like we’re stuck in an endless cycle of problem-solving. With their tendency to be emotionally volatile, and to focus on the here-and-now, it’s easy to become laser focused on helping them figure out how to solve something immediate or calm down from a crisis.
But working on mental health is about more than just problem-solving or crisis management. Just like our physical well-being depends on prevention and healthy habits, the same is true for our mental health.
When I work with teen clients, I help them create a plan for practicing what I call the 5 Habits of Mental Health.
There is a mountain of research telling us how important sleep is. But good quality sleep isn’t something that just happens. It comes from a series of habits that must be practiced and developed over time. Things like caffeine use throughout the day, eating habits in the evening, and bedtime routines all affect the quality of our sleep. Making sleep a priority is essential for mental well-being. Helping your teen prioritize sleep will go a long way toward reducing their stress and improving their overall well-being.
- Move your Body
Our brains work better when we get enough exercise. This can be something as simple as walking the dog or dancing around your room to your favorite music. Help your teen create a habit to move their body for 30 minutes every day. Even better – make a plan to move with them! Movement releases important chemicals that help us clear our heads, reduce stress and feel more calm.
- Meaningful Social Connections
Humans are wired for connection and belonging. It is important for teens to have people in their lives who they trust. People who allow them to be authentic and vulnerable. People they can lean on and feel safe confiding in. Helping your teen identify these people – whether they are parents, siblings, friends, teammates, or a trusted adult – reminds them that they are not alone and they have lots of people in their lives who are supportive. Knowing where to turn when they need support and learning how to ask for help are vital to our teens’ mental wellbeing.
- Moments of Joy
Teens today are experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress. There is no doubt about that. It is important to teach teens that creating happiness and joy in their lives doesn’t just happen by magic – it has to be intentional, and it needs to be a habit. Help your teen find and celebrate small moments of laughter, silliness, and joy each day. The options for these moments are endless: relaxing and laughing with a favorite show, playing with pets, dancing around the kitchen to a great song, or just spending time with people who make you feel lighter. And if your teen is struggling to identify those moments, work on a plan for taking a break from things that are stressful to intentionally create small moments of joy every day.
- Moments of Calm
Brains and bodies that are in a constant state of stress are easily exhausted. It is important for our teens to learn how to include moments of calm in their day. For many teens, this happens most easily at bedtime, but it can be incorporated into any part of their day. Ideas for calming the mind include reading a book, writing in a journal, engaging in something creative like cooking or painting, listening to relaxing music, taking a hot shower, practicing yoga or spending time in meditation or prayer. Just like with the moments of joy, the specific activity isn’t nearly as important as being intentional and making it a habit. When your teen learns to incorporate moments of calm into their routine, they start to learn that they have some control of their mind which helps reduce the impact of the stress they are feeling.
Mental health, much like physical health is not just a state of being – it is a collection of healthy habits. When we help our teens become more intentional about building and practicing these habits, we are giving them important skills that will last far beyond these teenage years. And one added bonus: these habits are important for adults too! So when you help your teen create healthier habits, you can improve your own mental health in the process.