By Dr. Mercola
Children are probably not the first ones who come to mind when you think about stress. After all, they've got no bills to worry about, no job or other responsibilities on their shoulders…
Yet, children feel stress, too – often significantly. They worry about making friends, succeeding at school or sports, and fitting in with their peers. They may also struggle with the divorce of their parents or feel anxious about war and violence they see on the news.
While a child's natural state is to be happy, vibrant and curious, it's estimated that up to 15 percent of children and teens are depressed at any given time.1
In reality, many of the same worries that make you feel anxious and sad have the same impact on your children. However, kids also have unique needs that can interfere with their ability to be happy if left unmet.
Nine Tips for Raising a Happy Child
Virtually every parent wants their child to be happy. The Huffington Post recently highlighted seven simple strategies for achieving this goal,2 and I've added a couple of my own as well.
1. Healthy Eating
Mood swings and even depression in kids are often the result of a heavily processed-food diet. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain! Your gut and brain actually work in tandem, each influencing the other.
This is why your child's intestinal health can have such a profound influence on his mental health, and vice versa – and why eating processed foods that can harm his gut flora can have a profoundly negative impact on his mood, psychological health and behavior.
The simplest way back toward health and happiness, for children and adults alike, is to focus on WHOLE foods -- foods that have not been processed or altered from their original state; food that has been grown or raised as nature intended, without the use of chemical additives, pesticides and fertilizers.
You, a family member, or someone you pay will need to invest time in the kitchen cooking fresh wholesome meals from these whole foods so that you can break free from the processed food diet that will ultimately make you and your children sick.
Food is a part of crucial lifestyle choices first learned at home, so you need to educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family.
To give your child the best start at life, and help instill healthy habits that will last a lifetime, you must lead by example. If you're not sure where to start, I recommend reading my nutrition plan first. This will provide you with the foundation you need to start making healthy food choices for your family.
2. Eating on Time
If a child goes too long without eating, it may lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels that lead to irritability. Children need to refuel their growing bodies on a regular schedule, so try to keep your child's meal and snack times consistent.
3. Regular, High-Quality Sleep
Too little sleep not only makes kids prone to being grouchy and having mood swings, it also negatively impacts children's behavior and attention. In fact, as little as 27 minutes of extra sleep a night has been shown to have a positive impact on children's mood and behavior.3
Children aged 5 to 12 need about 10-11 hours of sleep a night for optimal mood and health. To help your child get a good night's sleep, get the TV, computer, video games and cell phone out of your child's bedroom, and be sure the room is as dark as possible. Even the least bit of light in the room can disrupt your child's internal clock and her pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. I recommend using blackout shades or drapes. For my complete recommendations and guidelines that can help you improve your child's sleep, please see my article 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep.
4. Free Play
Unstructured playtime is essential for kids to build their imagination, relieve stress and simply be kids. Yet today, many kids are so over-scheduled that they scarcely have time to eat dinner and do homework, let alone have any free time for play. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics states that free, unstructured play is essential for children to manage stress and become resilient, as well as reach social, emotional and cognitive development milestones.4
Along with slowing down and resisting the urge to sign your child up for too many activities, be sure to provide your child with simple toys like blocks and dolls that allow for creative play. Free play time is also an ideal time for active play – like tag or chasing butterflies – which is naturally mood-boosting (as exercise is for adults).
5. Express Emotions
Kids need to yell, cry, stomp their feet and run around with excitement. This is how they express their emotions, which is healthy for emotional development and will prevent a lifetime of internalizing negative emotions. Encourage and allow your child to vent and express his emotions in healthy ways.
6. Make Choices
Kids are constantly being told what to do, so giving them the ability to make choices goes a long way toward increasing their happiness. Try letting your child decide what to wear or what to eat (within reason), or give her a few choices for activities and let her decide which one to do.
7. They Feel Heard
Your child knows when you're not really listening to them (such as if you're 'talking' to them while surfing the Web or watching TV). Yet a child's happiness will soar when he feels like his parents truly listen and respond to what he's saying. Not only will you feel more connected to your child, but you'll also build his self-confidence and happiness.
8. Unconditional Love
Above all else, children need unconditional love, and they need it consistently. If your child makes a mistake, let her know you still love and support her regardless. Your child will grow up confident and happy knowing you are behind her every step of the way.
9. Be Happy Yourself
If you're stressed out and unhappy, your child will sense this and also feel sad and worried in response. You are your child's first role model, so lead by example by embracing the bright side of life. If you need some help, use these 22 positive habits of happy people to become a happy person yourself.
Does Your Child's Mood Need an Extra Boost?
If you've addressed the lifestyle factors listed above, especially proper diet, sleep and time for free, unstructured play, but your child is still unhappy (for no obvious reason, such as being bullied or due to stress such as divorce at home), try these three tips below:
- High-quality animal-based omega-3 fats: Low concentrations of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA are known to increase your risk for mood swings and mood disorders. Those suffering from depression have been found to have lower levels of omega-3 in their blood, compared to non-depressed individuals. Krill oil is my preferred source of omega-3 fats.
- Regular sun exposure: This is essential for vitamin D production, low levels of which are linked to depression. But even beyond vitamin D, regular safe sun exposure is known to enhance mood and energy through the release of endorphins.
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT): If difficult life circumstances and the negative emotions they create are making happiness hard to come by for your child, try EFT, which is a form of do-it-yourself psychological acupressure. This simple technique can help clear your body and mind of negative emotions so you can implement positive goals and habits more easily in your life, and kids can learn to do it themselves.