Adults aren’t the only ones who need an occasional mental health day. The build-up of academic, social, and activity stressors can be overwhelming for kids if they aren’t balanced out by periods of recharging. Read on to discover 10 mental health activities for kids from a mental health professional that will help to restore and emotionally balance your child.
“Even if I was ok giving my child a mental health day, what would we even do?
As it turns out, this is a common question and stumbling block for many parents considering offering their stressed or overwhelmed child a mental health day off of school, or their regular day-to-day responsibilities.
The good news is, the answer isn’t complicated and requires no preparation or financial investment.
While your child may want to escape what’s on their mind by binging on screen time all day, spending time doing a few of these mental health day activities for kids will make the most of their time off, and give them the best emotional reset moving forward.
Having a conversation early on in the day to discuss both of your expectations, and letting your child help choose some of the following activities, will go far to get them on board and on the path to calm confidence again.
Here are the most powerful well-being boosting mental health day activities for kids that have a long history of research and evidence backing them up.
Related read>> 100 ways to boost mental health
10 Best Mental Health Day Activities for Kids
Hands down, the best thing you can do for your child during a mental health day is to connect with them emotionally and relationally. What does this mean exactly?
Giving your child full undivided attention and fully listening with the intent to understand their thoughts and feelings, and not just listening to respond.
When parents respond to their children with sensitivity and warmth, kids are more likely to develop secure attachments – loving, trusting relationships that promote confidence and emotional health. In addition, studies show that sensitive, affectionate, responsive parenting protects children from toxic stress.– Gwen Dewar Ph.D
Pro Tip: Connection with younger children happens less through direct conversation and more through play and shared activity, so be aware of when and how your child usually opens up
Physical movement is amazing for mental health in so many ways. Body movement allows emotions to move through us as well as creating a release of feel-good endorphins and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.
Aerobic exercise specifically has been found to be as effective as both medicine and psychotherapy for depression and anxiety, and it’s one of the strategies that will come naturally for your child.
According to the American Psychological Association:
“On average, young people who exercise more have lower levels of depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-image, life satisfaction and psychological well-being”
Pro tip: Ask your child if they’d like to choose an activity to ‘move our bodies or if they’d like you too. This way you can offer them some control if necessary, or not if they’re overwhelmed.
3. Slow down
Sometimes life feels kind of like running on a treadmill. One activity after the next and pretty soon, we’re not sure why we’re on the treadmill anymore or where we’re headed.
In order for your child to find the perspective needed to reflect, their brain needs the quiet time and space to do so. Our brains also do important regeneration and growth during quiet time.
“Silence offers opportunities for self-reflection and daydreaming, which activates multiple parts of the brain. It gives us time to turn down the inner noise and increase awareness of what matters most. And it cultivates mindfulness — recognition, and appreciation of the present moment.” -Cleveland Clinic
Pro Tip: Simply allow an open and unscheduled chunk of time for your child to navigate. Pretty easy right?
Play is not only how children learn almost everything from their cognitive development to social skills, it’s also how they blow off steam and express unprocessed emotions.
Megan Gunner Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota helps clarify how play reduces stress for kids:
Play is the best medicine in stressful times like this. Play gives children a sense of control because, by definition, play is what we engage in because we want to, not because we have to.
Fantasy play allows children to create a world where they decide what happens and they can predict what goes on. Control and predictability are two pillars of stress reduction.
Pro-tip: Push through your adult discomforts and don’t be afraid to get silly with your child! Allow them to direct the play and meet their needs for control and predictability.
Related read>> 75 Calm Down Strategies for Kids (that Actually Work!)
Journaling is a powerful activity for a mental health day, and for your child to externalize their emotions in a safe way. That is, get them ‘out of their head’ and into a productive outlet where they can be reflected on, understood, and worked through.
Clinical Social Worker Yanique Chambers explains why kids should journal:
Some kids keep their feelings to themselves because they don’t feel comfortable saying them out loud. They fear being ridiculed or believe that their thoughts and feelings aren’t important enough to share openly. Journal writing gives kids a judgment free space to self-explore and find their creative voice. They can use their journal as a place to dream and set goals. They can also use journal writing to find solutions to internal conflicts and solve problems.
Pro-tip: Use these engaging emotions flashcards for kids (fresh off the press!) to prompt them in writing how they feel and why.
Another way to help your child release and work through overwhelming emotions on a mental health day off of school, is by creating art. Not only will be they be given an avenue to express their emotions, but art also provides a conduit to emotional regulation and mindfulness.
Art materials provide a safe outlet for emotions. Feelings and ideas can be reduced to a manageable size and manipulated as desired. Movement, image, color, line, and imagination all help children express themselves in a multidimensional way. This is a way that words may not be able to do, or that may be more comfortable for them than words. – The Artful Parent
Pro-tip: Prepare an inviting surface (this might mean putting down a table cloth, tray etc) for your child, and set out a few different art tools for them to choose from.
There’s a reason that music therapy has been incorporated into most pediatric hospitals. Music is extremely beneficial for encouraging rest and relaxation in children, as explained by early childhood educator and composer Nancy Kopman.
Children’s Music for Rest and Relaxation can be used as an effective tool in helping children establish, strengthen and manage their own self-regulation. Knowing how to help oneself relax and focus is a healthy foundation for managing/coping with stress.
As much as music has the power to generate excitement and make kids want to get up and move, it can be equally effective at helping kids slow down their breathing, thoughts and bodies.
Pro tip: Spotify has tons of great playlists for relaxation or check out Nancy’s great collection of music for kids.
The typical child diet leaves a lot to be desired these days with an overabundance of processed foods and sugary sweets. Taking the opportunity to incorporate more nutrient dense and unprocessed foods on your child’s mental health day could possibly improve their mood and even their future habits.
The relationship between food and mood is a two-way street. What you eat affects your mood, and your mood can affect your food choices.
There are hundreds of risk factors that contribute to mental health and mood issues such as anxiety, depression and behavioural disorders. But of all of those risk factors, food is one of the most controllable. So even if you have a genetic predisposition to one or more of these, what you eat can make a significant difference. -Jessica Donovan, Founder of Natural Superkids
Pro tip: Make a healthy recipe together with your child and reap the benefits of a better mood, fun and connection.
Related Read>> 75 Ways to Show Love to Your Child and Boost Their Self-Esteem
If you haven’t tried mindfulness activities for kids with your child yet, a mental health day is a great time to do so. Meditation is one way to practice mindfulness with kids and simply means paying attention and becoming aware of the present moment, and will literally help shift your child out of their body’s stress response system and into the calm and focused part of the brain.
Studies show that the benefits of mindfulness for kids may include:
1. Increased focus, attention, self-control, classroom participation, compassion.
2. Improved academic performance, ability to resolve conflict, overall well-being.
3. Decreased levels of stress, depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior.
Pro tip: Check out the best tools for mindfulness with kids that promote calm and focus
9. Problem Solve
A mental health day with your child is the perfect time to step back from the daily grind and reflect on what’s going well and what may not be.
Without intentionally planning, problem solving and goal setting it’s unlikely that long-term and meaningful progress will be made in a timely manner in the areas your child is struggling with.
Reasons WHY your child should learn goal-setting include: teaches them to take responsibility for their own behaviors and learning, promotes a “can-do” attitude and it forms a powerful lifelong habit. -Big Life Journal
Pro Tip: Use these goal setting resources for kids to make it super simple for you and your child.
10. Go Outdoors
Specifically, we have learned that nature tends to result in reduced circulating levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and the inflammatory marker immunoglobulin A. It is also associated with lowered blood pressure, improved “affect” (or short-term emotional experience), blunted “perceived stress” after stressful life events, and lower short-term levels of anxiety and depression.
Pro-tip: Bring an ‘indoor activity’ outside! Simply grab your lunch, some books or a board game and do them outside instead.
Mental health day activities for kids are powerful
While you might assume your child’s days of new learning, making friends and just growing are only full of childhood wonder and joy, mental health professionals know otherwise.
Whether it’s pressure to achieve high academic scores, making it onto a club sports team or just navigating social conflicts with peers, your child faces a number of stressors everyday out in the world, and sometimes it all starts to feel like too much.
Allowing your child to take a load off and engage in these mental health day activities for kids will help them accomplish the 3 R’s that we could all use a little more of, relaxation, reflection and reset.
This article is the third in a 4-part series on mental health days for kids.
Check out the other articles in the series:
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This post was originally published 7/12/2021 and has been updated.