It is a critical time for children and teenagers to learn the importance of taking care of themselves and their communities. Self-care can help kids of all ages become more introspective and aware of their physical and emotional needs. It can also prepare them to effectively handle future stressors. Even small acts of self-care and self-help can decrease stress, improve relationships, and promote wellness of the body and mind. Keep reading to learn more about self-care for kids by age from ChildSavers therapist, Holly Jones, LCSW.
How to explain and role model self-care to kids
Parents, educators, and caregivers can teach their children healthy self-care habits at any age. Adults can do so by helping children schedule self-care breaks/check-ins throughout the day, enacting daily or weekly check-ins throughout the day/week, and role modeling. We can model self-care by acknowledging your own needs as a parent. Kids often learn more from what parents do rather than what they say!
We must remember that parents’ ideas about self-care might look different than their children’s ideas. Notice how your child responds to suggested self-care activities (examples listed below). Trying a variety of wellness exercises will support kids in discovering what fits their needs best.
Sometimes, it can feel easier during a stressful moment to take the reins and complete a task for your child. When this happens, children miss an opportunity to build self-confidence and problem-solving skills. If a child asks you for help, consider if it is a task they could try on their own or with limited support. It might help to share an affirmation that lets them know you will be there to support them. Consider saying something like, “I believe in you. I’ll be here if you get stuck, but you try it first.”
Praise the child for trying something new on their own, even if it didn’t go as you had hoped! Though this might be more time-consuming than completing it for them, the energy you put into this will help that child feel more confident and prepared next time.
Mindful parent moment: What small step can you take towards caring for yourself today? For example, drinking a glass of water, reminding yourself of something you are grateful for, or pausing to enjoy the sound of birds chirping outside.
First steps: helping kids start self care practices
Remember to start small. When it comes to encouraging kids to explore self-care on their own, consider their age and developmental level. For younger children, see if they can blow their nose, brush their hair, or get their own drink. Make sure they can access the necessary items to complete the task. If they are having a difficult time, try breaking the task into smaller steps. For middle schoolers and teenagers, see if they can wake themselves up in the morning, prepare a meal, or care for a family pet.
Movement and creative activities can provide an emotional outlet and foster connection. Activities like painting, coloring, or molding clay are less likely to feel like a chore. Music and dance can have huge positive impacts on your child’s cognitive development, self-awareness, and physical health. As your child moves their body to the music, their brain releases endorphins to promote well-being and improve mood. Consider playing background music to try to balance your child’s mood; if they are struggling with anxiety or frustration, play softer or more uplifting music.
Don’t be afraid to get silly! Offer to let your child be the expert and have them teach you a new dance move. Sometimes families need to share a laugh together. Play a game, make a pillow fort, watch a funny movie, or try a puzzle together. Try your best to put away distractions and truly be present in the joyful moments. Having fun together helps families feel more connected and also lets you learn more about your children’s likes and dislikes.
Self-care for Elementary Schoolers
Carve out daily quiet time together
It is important for families to carve out space for quiet time. A few minutes of singing to your child, reading a book together, or listening to a kid-friendly YouTube meditation can strengthen your connection. Particularly for younger children, consider incorporating a “slow down” time in your family’s routine; this will also help train their brain to make mindful choices.
Make a calm down box (5 minute-activity)
Some children respond well to having their own “calm-down box”. Include items that are soothing to the senses, i.e. fidget toy, stuffed animal, lollipop, stress ball, bubble wrap, plastic snow globe, scratch & sniff stickers. When you observe them on the verge of a meltdown, encourage the child to utilize the items in the box to help regulate their emotions. It can be helpful to think of these items as “special tools” rather than for normal play. Make sure that you are encouraging the child with positive language rather than making it part of a consequence. The goal is for the child to eventually recognize on their own situations where they could use the box to calm down!
Additional self-care exercises for elementary schoolers can include:
- Practice your breathing by blowing on a pinwheel.
- Review a few things you’re grateful for that day together.
- Help your child(ren) label emotions – these cards can help!
- Help them understand their needs as introverts or extroverts.
Self-care for Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers
‘Leave it at the door’ exercise
Every time you enter a doorway in your home, take the opportunity to have a positive mental shift. Remind yourself to leave the past behind and stay focused on the present. This may make your teenager roll their eyes at first but if you begin by practicing this together, they may make a habit of it on their own.
3-step self compassion break
During or after a stressful event, practice a three-step, self-compassion break with your adolescent or model it for them to practice on their own. The first step is to acknowledge this is a difficult moment (i.e. “This is stressful”). The second step is to acknowledge that stress and suffering are parts of life (i.e. “Other people feel this way; I’m not alone”). The last step is to ask yourself, what can I do to be kind to myself? It might help to think about what a loved one might tell you (i.e. “May I accept myself as I am; may I be strong”).
Engage the senses without a screen
Encourage your teen to put their phone, tablet, gaming system, or computer away. Try taking a few deep breaths and lighting a candle, listening to music, playing with sand/play dough, baking something, meditating, going for a walk/run, stretching or yoga, playing a sport, eating something healthy, creating art just for YOU, etc.
Do something for others
Sometimes doing something for another person and taking the focus off of ourselves can clear our heads. First, think about someone (a friend, teacher, coach, or family member), and ponder what they appreciate. Then, make or do something nice for that person like drawing a picture, doing the dishes, etc.. Doing nice things for others can also help us like ourselves even more.
Additional tools for children’s self-care
ChildSavers’ team of mental health professionals provide a plethora of mindfulness techniques and self-care tips, including:
- Self-Care Activities Adults Can Try with Kids
- Reflective Exercise: Draw Yourself Upside Down
- Mindfulness Exercise: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself Daily
- How to Help Kids Manage Emotions During COVID-19