Five ways to support children’s mental health in winter

by Dr Hazel Harrison, Clinical Psychologist

An easy way to understand wellbeing is to say it’s ‘feeling good and doing good’.

However, both the ‘feeling’ and ‘doing’ can be harder to achieve when it’s winter. Not only is the weather generally worse than it is during the rest of the year; the evenings are darker, earlier. It can feel like there’s less time for the fun and adventure we had in the summer.

But the good news is that there are ways you can help children keep their wellbeing topped up - and your own, too. Here are five top tips.

1. Keep moving

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Whilst it’s tempting to move our bodies less in winter, children and adults need to remain physically active during this cold season. When we move our bodies, it has a positive effect on how our brain works, as the brain starts releasing chemicals that make us feel good about ourselves - and the world around us.

It’s also important to get outside and soak up whatever natural light is available, as this can also help our brains and bodies to keep functioning effectively and keep our vitamin D topped up.

So, what can you get up to on a cold and possibly wet winter day? Here are a few fun adventures to consider - once you’ve got the right kit on, of course:

Get your wellies on. Hopefully you won’t need to go far before you’re able to jump in some muddy puddles.

Do a treasure hunt. While you’re out walking, or just in your garden or a nearby park, ask children to see how many items they can spot. Or encourage them to devise their own list and ask you instead!

Go to a forest. Many children love the freedom of simply exploring and may like to build dens and climb trees as well.

And, on those days when it’s just too wet or snowy to venture outside, you can keep moving while you’re indoors...

Host a home disco. Play the family’s favourite dance songs and have a boogie for ten minutes.

Watch BBC Super Movers videos. These short films can get the whole family moving (and learning). Learning routines (or just attempting them) means your child’s brain and body (and yours!) are keeping active and engaged.

Blow up a balloon. Once you’ve tied it, see how long you can keep it up in the air while passing it between you.

2. Get cosy

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School can be tiring, so children may need some comforting ‘refuel time’ with a parent or carer - and the winter weekends and evenings can offer some good opportunities. It can be as simple as curling up on the sofa together and watching a film or some cartoons - and then chatting about your favourite bits.

Having these sorts of conversations can help to make the positive buzz of watching (and laughing) together last for longer. It’ll also improve your child’s ability to reflect on their experiences and talk about their preferences.

Stories are another great way to help children recharge as they lose themselves in wonderful fictional worlds. There are likely to be some old favourites they want you to read again, as they’ll take comfort from hearing a familiar tale (for children, knowing how it ends is a good thing, not a spoiler alert!). However, you could also borrow some new books from your local library and see if they captivate and inspire them as well.

3. Take in the good stuff

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It’s helpful for children (and adults) to have a healthy balance of emotions in a day. However, it’s human nature to focus on the less positive experiences, unless we make a conscious effort to concentrate on the things that are working well. With a little practice, we can find ways to develop a more balanced perspective and helping children to learn this skill from a young age can really benefit their social and emotional development.

Here are two tips for achieving this re-balance:

Make a ‘Top Times’ scrapbook. Help your child to create a scrapbook of memories, with printed out photos, drawn pictures, saved tickets and other bits and pieces stuck in to help them remember. These don’t have to mark occasions; they can capture smaller moments of joy, like throwing a ball for a dog or seeing a rainbow.

Once you’ve built a collection of pages (and maybe several scrapbooks), you can enjoy looking through them together.

Create a gratitude jar. Another way to take in the good stuff is to write down a little note when something’s gone well and keep it in a jar or box. Younger children may prefer telling you what to write so you can record the experiences for them. As they get older, they may want to write their own notes.

You can encourage them by modelling the behaviour yourself (it may even boost your mood too!). The great thing about a gratitude jar is you can revisit it on days when you need a little boost. Perfect for a cosy winter night treat, when you can just sit together and read some of the things you’ve been grateful for.

Building gratitude habits doesn’t mean we diminish the struggles that children (and we) experience. It’s really important to talk about these difficult moments too. But, having a time in the day when you focus on the positive can be useful in helping children to keep their thoughts balanced.

4. Learn something new

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The winter months are a great time to set some goals about new things you and your child want to learn. It could be something that helps encourage their independence at school, like tying their own shoelaces or buttoning up their coat. Or it could be something that helps at home, such as how to put their clothes away or helping out with washing up. When children feel they’re contributing to family ‘work’, it can enhance their sense of belonging. If your child is capable of doing things for themselves, give them as many opportunities as you can to practise these skills.

Whatever the learning goals, it can be helpful if children understand they can improve their skills and abilities. This is often referred to as a 'growth mindset' since it’s about realising we all have the ability to change the way we think and do things. So, whether it’s tying shoelaces, learning to spell, or even how to hop on one leg, the way adults talk to children about the learning will influence those children’s beliefs.

Here are two ways to encourage your child to adopt a growth mindset:

Add the word ‘yet’. Changing the way you talk about intelligence and ability can help your child understand that learning is a process - our skills and traits aren’t fixed from birth. When your child claims “I can’t do this” (whether they’re talking about a new hobby, homework, or anything else), say: “You can’t do it yet”.

Adding and emphasising this tiny word subtly reinforces the learning process and may help them to try again.

Practise (and fail) with your child. Trying new things can be scary, but it’s often less daunting when you do it with others. As a family, you might decide to try something new and celebrate your learning and your failures when it doesn’t work (the first, second, or even the ninety-ninth time!).

5. Take care of yourself

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Being able to support your child’s wellbeing also involves taking care of yourself. As a starting point, try and eat nutritious healthy food; it’s a great idea to turn cooking into an activity the whole family takes part in. Life can often feel very busy and parents give themselves a hard time about being unable to do everything perfectly. Remember, though, there are no ‘perfect parents’.

We all get things wrong, we all have days when we struggle. And while it may be true that you might not have done everything ‘perfectly’, you’ve probably done more things to support your child’s wellbeing than you realise. So, try and focus on what you’re doing well – it’s not you being boastful, it’s actually really helpful for your child to do this. Children can learn a lot from hearing adults respond kindly to themselves when things don’t work out - and then from seeing the grown-ups try again. Notice how you speak to yourself about your mistakes. If you can cultivate kindness towards yourself, your child is more likely to practise this when they get things wrong too.

It might also be useful to take a moment and think about the activities, people and places that help you to feel brighter and refuelled in winter. No matter how busy you are, try and squeeze in a little time for yourself. It’s likely to help you with the many joys and challenges that parenting can bring.

Dr Hazel Harrison is a Clinical Psychologist with a particular focus on mental health and wellbeing.

For further information check out the rest of Starting Primary School which has lots of ways to help prepare children for different aspects of school life – both practically and emotionally.

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