8 Mental Health Activities to Best Support Kids and Teens

Available for Interviews: Dr. Pete Loper

Dr. Pete Loper, MD, MSEd, FAAP, is a triple board-certified physician in pediatrics, psychiatry, and child psychiatry. He is also a professor and executive coach and is dedicated to mental health and wellness advocacy.

What Dr. Loper could say on
Mental Health Support of Our Children:

    • It is important to teach our children about mental health early in life because mental health is health. Human behavior is a manifestation of feelings and thoughts that then elicit specific actions and activities. The epidemic of chronic physical diseases that ail us as a society can be prevented, cured, or managed by lifestyle modification, or by simply changing our behaviors. Therefore, good mental health is a necessity for the consistent and sustained behaviors required for lifelong physical health and overall well-being.
    • It’s often challenging to identify a child’s specific mental health needs. Unlike physical health needs, mental health needs are difficult to target because they are often invisible, and hidden inside the individual until disclosed through direct communication or maladaptive behaviors.

    • We as parents often struggle to support our children’s mental health needs due to social and cultural misconceptions and stigma regarding mental health. We often unwittingly teach our children that it is inappropriate or bad to experience “negative” feelings such as anxiety, sadness, or distress. This inhibits our children’s capacity to engage and cope with these common, normal feelings in a healthy and meaningful way. In reality, when these so-called “negative” feelings are experienced and processed in a healthy way, they add to the richness of the human experience, and they become a powerful impetus for healthy human growth, development, and adaptation.
    • One of the common misconceptions about mental health is that mental illness is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. In reality, the most common mental health problems, depression, and anxiety are expected and normal responses to an absence of a fundamental psychosocial or emotional human need. We were already in the Isolation Epidemic prior to COVID-19, and loneliness and isolation have only gotten worse. Healthy human growth and development occur via meaningful interpersonal interactions embedded in the context of community. When human beings are deprived of water, they become thirsty and dehydrated. Analogously, when human beings are deprived of meaningful interpersonal interactions, they become anxious and sad.

What Can Parents Do?
Here are 3 Actionable tips

    • We as parents can create a family culture of acceptance and non-judgment regarding all feelings and emotional states.
    • Teach your child how to label and describe their feelings.
    • When your child exhibits distress or “negative” feelings, support them in labeling their current feelings, and remain passively and gently present. 
    • Promote healthy activities for your children.

8 Activities for Kids and Teens

These activities can foster mental health and improve/teach coping skills in children of all ages:

    1. Play. Play is important for humans at any age, including adults. However, especially for younger children, play is often how they process their feelings. The most effective modality for play in children is imaginative play, where the child processes their feelings by creating a plot and storyline using dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, Legos, or other tangible toys. 
    2. Socialize with friends. Meaningful interpersonal interaction in person and in real-time with other children is vital to supporting mental health. Particularly beginning around 7 years of age, social interactions with peers support children in developing a sense of competency, relatedness, and belonging. For teenagers, social interactions with peers are vital to healthy identity formation, and to establishing the fidelity required to form longstanding relationships and contribute in a productive way to their communities.
    3. Enjoy the outdoors. Time spent outdoors is essential for mental health. Sunlight exposure promotes adequate levels of Vitamin D, which is crucial to supporting healthy brain development and mental health. Further, sunlight exposure ensures a healthy circadian cycle, which supports good sleep and overall mental health. “Forrest bathing” or spending time walking, hiking, or camping in the outdoors improves mood and decreases anxiety. 
    4. Cook with your kids. Cooking supports social interaction, cooperation, creativity, and healthy eating habits and therefore supports mental health and overall wellbeing. For younger children, incorporate them into the planning of the meal, and take them to the grocery store so that they can participate in picking out ingredients. For teenagers, giving them the autonomy to plan the meal, purchase the ingredients, and prepare the meal supports their sense of self-efficacy and improves their self-esteem.
    5. Participate in team activities. Whether organized sports, band, dance, or theater, participating in team activities fosters mental health and well-being. Team activities support your child in developing self-discipline, commitment, good communication skills, and self-esteem. More importantly, participating in team activities supports kids in establishing the social connectivity with their peers required for resilience. 
    6. Sit quietly. Teaching your children starting at a young age the value of sitting quietly, without any screens, toys, or distractions, can have a big impact on their lifelong mental health. Quiet time helps relax both mind and body and can improve your child’s focus and concentration. For younger children, starting with a few minutes at first, and then gradually increasing their quiet time to fifteen minutes once a day can have a big impact. (You can make a game of it, and provide a reward for sitting quietly for their target amount of time.) For teenagers, twenty minutes once or twice a day is sufficient. Providing them with resources or education regarding meditation practices and breathing exercises can augment the value of their quiet time.
    7. Practice the fine arts. The fine arts, whether playing an instrument, drawing, painting, writing, sculpting, or poetry, support mindfulness, decrease anxiety, support creativity, and thereby foster mental health. Engaging children in artistic endeavors beginning at an early age can support their lifelong mental health.
    8. Try something new. A new experience, a new activity, or traveling to a new place can often take children out of their comfort zone and provoke some anxiety. However, in doing so children can develop a healthy relationship with anxiety thereby developing their capacity for courage, or the ability to do something even if they are a little scared or anxious. Courage is one of the four core components of self-worth, and self-worth is vital for mental health and well-being.

How Parents Can Support Good
Mental Health Habits for Their Kids

To support your child’s mental health make meaningful interpersonal interactions a habit in the home. This means putting all screens, cell phones, and distractions aside and being fully present with one another for a set period of time during the course of every day. One of the most effective strategies to achieve this is to commit to eating a nightly family dinner. Other strategies to support real-time social interactions can include having a family game night or taking a nightly family walk. 


Interview: Dr. Pete Loper

Dr. Pete Loper began his undergraduate studies in English at Kenyon College prior to completing his premedical coursework and Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Carolina (U of SC).  He earned his Doctor of Medicine from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, and his Master of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.  Following medical school, Dr. Loper completed a residency in pediatrics. He then worked as a pediatrician in a private practice setting while completing a second residency in psychiatry and a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry.  He has also completed the American Psychoanalytic Association’s Psychoanalytic Fellowship Program and the Teleos Leadership Institute’s Coach Development Program.

Dr. Loper has been featured in numerous academic publications and media outlets and it is through these channels that he can dedicate his time to being an advocate for mental health and wellness.

Jo Allison
Managing Editor
Director of Public Relations
Success In Media, Inc.

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