How to Help Kids Cope with Trauma

Sometimes, the hardest part about being a parent is the things you can’t do. 

The past year has shown every family how powerless we are as parents to protect our children from trauma and stress. Even if your family was lucky enough to avoid serious illness or loss from the COVID-19 pandemic, your children experienced disruptive routine changes and isolation as they transitioned to online or hybrid school. And now, just as things are starting to get “back to normal,” one of the largest fires in our state’s history is raging just a few counties away. This year is underscoring the reality that we as parents can’t prevent frightening things from happening in our children’s lives.

And even if life does get back to normal over the next few months, that transition can be challenging, too. Going back to in-person school will be stressful for kids who’ve been learning online or hybrid for most of the past year. In addition to the stress of re-learning how to interact socially, kids need to re-learn how to get up and out of the house instead of rolling over and turning on the computer, how to manage a long day of school and after-school activities, and how to keep up with homework and motivate themselves after a long day at school. Plus, they’re doing all this in the middle of a pandemic that still hasn’t ended — most kids still can’t get vaccinated, and the possibility of more lockdowns and more school shutdowns still hangs over their heads. 

But even though we can’t prevent stressful situations in our kids’ lives, we can help them cope. 

Here’s how parents can help children manage trauma and stress. 

Keep your routine

Maintain your family routines as much as you can. Routines can give kids a feeling of security and reliability, so they can help kids feel safer in the middle of transition and stress. Even if it’s not possible to keep all your daily routines, aim for weekly routines. Even something as simple as a family board game night every Friday can help your kids feel more secure and give them a routine to look forward to. 

Listen

Now more than ever, it’s obvious to parents – and probably to kids, too – that we can’t always keep our families safe from danger. But as parents, we can create a sense of emotional safety for our kids, even in dangerous situations. Do this by listening and validating their emotions. Give kids a chance to talk about what they’re feeling about scary events in the world, whether it’s the fear of going back to school and not being able to connect with friends or the fear of having to evacuate because of fire. Help your kids find words to express their emotions, and validate that those feelings make sense.

Just listening can be difficult – when your kids talk about stressful feelings, your instinct is to want to fix it. But telling kids that it’s not as bad as it feels, or trying to convince them to feel better, can actually make them feel worse. Instead, try to just validate their feelings by saying something simple like “That sounds really hard” or “It sounds like you feel really scared.” Instead of offering solutions, give your kids space to feel negative emotions – and then give them the time to come up with their own solutions to the problem. 

Cry together

Grieving is an important piece of processing stress and trauma, but it’s one that we often try to gloss over. There are few things more painful than seeing your child cry, but grieving – and sometimes crying – is an essential step in accepting when bad or scary things have happened. Kids can process emotions in lots of different ways, so encourage them to express their feelings in whatever way feels best for them. That might mean crying and cuddling together, or it might mean drawing pictures or reliving scary experiences with toys. Even though it can be scary to let your kids revisit frightening or upsetting experiences, the truth is that feeling those negative feelings is essential to processing them. 

Encourage good boundaries 

For kids, traumatic experiences often involve having their boundaries violated. Feeling scared can also cause kids to struggle with defining good boundaries; they might want lots of space and independence one minute, and want to be coddled the next. You can help your kids process by modeling and teaching good boundaries. Teach them to recognize when they’re feeling stressed or angry, and tell them that anger is often a sign their emotional boundary is being crossed. Encourage them to tell you (with words!) what they’re feeling and to ask for what they need. 

Teaching kids to enforce their own boundaries is difficult, because most of the time, they’ll practice this skill first on you. But as a parent, it’s your job to be a safe space to practice these kinds of interpersonal skills – even if it’s uncomfortable for you. So when your kids ask you for space, model respect for their boundaries. It might feel like you’re giving up on connecting with them, but in the long run, your relationship will be stronger for it. 

Empower them to find solutions 

Instead of offering solutions, ask your kids questions that will help them create their own solutions. If they’re worried about seeing their friends in person again, help them role play what might happen and what they want to say on the first day of school. Encourage them to think through the “worst case scenario” and how they would handle it. Even though the worst case probably won’t happen, it can help kids feel better to make a plan for it.  

Tell the truth

When your child is struggling, it’s a natural instinct to reassure them that “everything is going to be okay.” But the truth is, you can never be certain about the future. You don’t know for sure if the pandemic is going to go away, or if the fire isn’t going to spread. Instead, tell your kids the truth: that their feelings are valid and allowed, that you’ll always support them no matter what, and that you love them. 

There are many things you can’t do as a parent. You can’t prevent bad things from happening, and you can’t control the future. But you can love and support your children unconditionally – and ultimately, that’s enough.

Nurturing Connection

Connection with others and a sense of belonging is a basic human need. Like air to breathe and food to eat, being in relationships with other people is part of being human. Feeling connected to others contributes to both our mental and physical health.

Brene Brown, in a conversation with Psychology Today said this of the importance of social connection, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” 

The social distancing required through the pandemic has been hard on us all, both emotionally and physically. Studies have shown that isolation and lack of social connection can be as bad for our health as obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.

It’s been hard. But there is hope. Says Dr. Emma Seppala, “Fear not! The good news is that social connection has more to do with your subjective feeling of connection than your number of friends. You could have 1,000 friends and still feel low in connection (thus the expression loneliness in a crowd) but you could also have no close friends or relatives but still feel very connected from within.

There are ways, even now, to nurture connection with others and support our children as they learn how to build social connections. 

Says Rebecca Thompson, in her book Nurturing Connection,Nurturing our relationship with our children is the heart and soul of consciously parenting. Nurturing relationships, once they are established, is really an art. It is about remembering that our children’s need for connection is a primary factor in most of their behavior. It is about recognizing that, in every parenting situation, we have choices about how we respond to our children and their behaviors. It is about seeing every parenting situation as an opportunity to create connection or disconnection.”

Nurturing connection is the topic of our next Nurturing Series workshop. We will explore how our early experiences shaped the way we relate to others and learn some effective strategies for helping children develop skills for deeper connections with others.

Family is the first experience children have with forming connections. As they enter school, peers and other adults offer more opportunities for connection. Albert Bandura, Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University, studied social learning theory and looked at how children learn in social environments. Social Learning Theory says that by observing others and the consequences of their actions, children form opinions that affect their own choices. Children who observe others being rewarded for behavior are more likely to engage in that same behavior. Children who observe others being punished for behavior are less likely to exhibit the same behavior. Strong, supportive social connections provide the foundation for social learning.

To learn more about helping children develop skills for nurturing connection, join Dr. Aoife Magee online Wednesday, February 3rd at 6:30 pm. In this 2-hour virtual workshop, we will explore a strengths-based approach for nurturing connection with our children and supporting diverse families in our communities. To register, email poel@linnbenton.edu or call: 541-917-4899.

 

Deactivating Stress Triggers

This is Part Two of our three-part series on stress and mindfulness. 

In our last post, we looked at the impact stress has on our minds and bodies. We talked about the overabundance of chemicals produced by our body in response to stress. We identified the impact of those excess chemicals on our physical, mental, and emotional health. 

A woman sitting on the ground is silhouetted by the setting sun. In this post, we will look at ways to help our minds and bodies manage by deactivating those stress triggers and minimizing those impacts. 

Says Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind. “In order to learn how to let go of stress, it’s advantageous to have a basic understanding of how it works in the body,” 

“When we detect a change in the environment that commands our attention, our body releases a precisely choreographed cascade of hormones designed to prepare us for a reaction. Our breathing and heart rate quicken, we may feel our muscles tense in preparation to fight or flee. Our body is shifting from a sympathetic-dominant state in order to prepare us for survival.”

The human stress response was well-developed eons ago when early man navigated in a wilderness of wild beasts. The problem today isn’t that our bodies react, but that usually what we are reacting to isn’t a saber tooth tiger about to pounce. 

Handling this disconnect, between the most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, and the modern-day events that stimulate the amygdala’s ‘fight or flight’ response, requires some intervention.

Melanie Greenberg, in The Stress-Proof Brain, says, “Having a stress-proof brain means being able to slow things down, ground yourself, and overcome feelings of anxiety and helplessness that may have their roots in past, difficult experiences. It means being CEO of your own brain rather than letting your amygdala be in charge.” (p210) 

Stress experts like Drs. Greenberg and Lagos offer the following strategies for mindfully handling our responses to the emotions triggered by stress.

Still life of a bottle of olive oil surrounded by two red tomatoes, a sprig of green rosemary and a garlic bulb.Diet and Exercise

Being “CEO” of your brain begins with taking care of it and the rest of your body. Eating healthy foods, walking, and making sure you are moving and using your muscles in a healthy way all support an environment for optimum mental and physical health. Feeling tense? Take a brisk walk to boost endorphins and help your body regulate those stress hormones. Plan your meals and eat them on a regular schedule. This will help make sure you are eating fresh fruit, whole grains, and proteins – all helpful in stress-proofing your brain. It’s also helpful to be aware of foods that trigger overeating. For example, sugary foods can cause blood sugars to spike, then crash, leading to overeating.

Slow down, Positive thinking

When we are overwhelmed, our tendency is to shift into overdrive. But the acceleration adds to our anxiety, as we try to handle the stress and also the anxiety about the stress. To avoid stressing about stress, downshift instead of accelerating. Take a few moments to slow down and regroup. Allow your body to process your current emotion before taking action. Using the power of positive thinking can also help lower our anxiety, since pessimistic thoughts are more likely to cause anxiety. Try replacing self-defeating negative thoughts with more positive – or even more neutral – alternatives. When you find yourself thinking self-defeating thoughts like, “I never get this right,” try changing that thought to, “This time I didn’t get this right, but next time I will.”

Calming your amygdala

Another strategy for handling difficult emotions is to practice calming the amygdala with deep belly breathing and regular mindfulness meditation. 

Michigan Medicine, at the University of Michigan, offers these instructions for mindful belly breathing:

  1. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
  2. Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
  4. Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.
  5. Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
  6. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

Breath awareness 

Mindful breathing exercises can also help disrupt the ‘fight or flight’ response of the amygdala. Emily Fletcher, in Stress Less, Accomplish More, recommends the 2x Breath. Breathe in through your nose to the count of 2 and out through your mouth to the count of 4. Repeat a few times. (While walking if you feel really overloaded.) When you are calmer, find a comfortable chair and continue mindful breathing for a few more minutes, extending inhales to the count of 3 and then 4, with exhales twice as long. 

Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind, encourages a twice-daily practice of 20 minutes of mindful breathing. She recommends heart rate monitors to track the benefits of these daily breathing exercises.

Presence and Mindfulness

Overriding the primitive reactions of our amygdala takes awareness. By slowing down we give ourselves the opportunity to experience our feelings without reacting to them mindlessly. By using simple techniques such as breath awareness and deep breathing, we help our bodies balance the chemical responses to stress. By bringing conscious awareness to the physical effects of our reactions to stressful events, we ground ourselves, keeping fear-based responses at bay, making us better able to respond with curiosity and creativity. 

Our amygdala, that most primitive part of our brain, engages without conscious thought. Finding ways to engage the more evolved parts of our brain when handling stress allows us to make conscious choices about our reactions. Next time we will delve more deeply into using presence and mindfulness as an antidote to stress.

Stress and Mindfulness

Today we begin a 3-part series on stress.  In this series we will begin by looking at the impact stress has on our well being – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Then we’ll take a look at some tried and true methods for deactivating stress triggers. Finally, we will delve more deeply into presence and mindfulness as antidotes to stress.

What is “stress”?

We hear and talk a lot about stress. But what exactly is “stress”? Emily Fletcher, in her book Stress Less, Accomplish More, says stress is not a thing, it’s a reaction. She describes stress as the negative impact of the demands made on us by our personal and professional responsibilities. (p45)

Stress is not the responsibilities themselves, but is a reaction to the demands those responsibilities put on us. Ms. Fletcher asserts, “And that is what stress is: your reaction to the stuff, not the stuff itself.”

That’s good news when we’re feeling overwhelmed.  In our next post we’ll look at ways to manage our reactions and reduce the negative impact. But first, let’s look at how our feelings of overwhelm impact us.

The impact of stress

When we are stressed, our bodies produce a variety of chemicals that affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. These include cortisol, epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These chemicals are both beneficial and problematic.  In the right quantities, these chemicals coursing through our bodies help us. Serotonin, for example, helps aid digestion, heal wounds, and regulate anxiety. But excess serotonin can lead to diarrhea, headaches, and confusion. 

The American Institute of Stress lists 50 common signs and symptoms of stress. Among them: weight gain, overreaction to petty annoyances, difficulty making decisions, depression, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating.

We may have trouble sleeping, experience headaches, overeat, or have neck or back pain. Stress also affects us mentally.  We may find it difficult to concentrate, hard to make a decision, or find ourselves less productive at work.  Emotionally, we may feel increased anxiety, worry more, feel frustrated or angry more often, and approach others with hostility. Depression and mood swings are also telltale signs of the effects of stress on us emotionally.

Statistics on the impact of stress

Stress takes a toll on all aspects of our life. At work, stress leads to distraction, feelings of isolation, absenteeism, and fear of job loss. At home, stress affects our relationships with our families and roommates, diminishes our enjoyment of everyday pleasures, and can lead to depression and addiction.

According to a study by the Mental Health Institute, 81% of respondents said workplace stress affects their relationships with friends and family. 53% of respondents missed 6 or more days of work a month due to workplace stress. 63% of respondents reported that their workplace stress resulted in a significant impact on their mental and behavioral health. 

Benefits of understanding the impact of stress

 

Understanding the impact of stress is the first step to minimizing those impacts. Recognizing the demands that are causing our stress responses, then taking action to change our response can have lasting benefits  and lead to a decrease in the negative impact on our brains, bodies, and mental health.

The good news is we can tame the beast. Each of us carries within us the ability to change how we respond.

We all have demands made on us by our personal and professional responsibilities. But we also have the tools available to manage those demands and lessen the impact of stressors. 

In our next post we will look at ways to deactivate our stress triggers – action we can take to reduce the impact of a chronic stress response. If stress is the reaction to the stuff of our lives, altering how we react can go a long way to reducing the negative impacts of stress. We will look at increasing cognitive flexibility, the power of positive thinking, and the impact of diet and lifestyle on our stress levels.  Until then, when your body is telling you it’s all too much, stop a minute and take a few slow, deep breaths.

Japanese forest bathing

Last week our family hiked at Bald Hill. We had masks at the ready and were careful to socially distance from other hikers. We did the pasture loop, which is short, with a wide paved path that skirts around most of the hill. Despite forecasts of sunny, warm weather, it started to sprinkle as we left the car. 

The sprinkle turned to rain as we left the pasture for the trees, but after a bit it stopped. To be honest, the damp was about the only thing I noticed as we walked.

I’m kicking myself today, because we missed a magnificent opportunity to experience what in Japanese is called “shinrin-yoku”, or forest bathing.

Dr. Qing Li , author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, describes it like this, “In Japan, we practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.”

He explains, “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”

The Japanese aren’t the only ones who have discovered the health benefits of communing with nature. There are many studies that have documented how spending time outdoors lowers stress for everyone and, among other things, improves concentration for children with ADHD. You’ll find details and some great links for more reading here

How to Forest Bathe

So how does one “forest bathe”? First, find a forest with even walking paths. You can go it alone, or join a walk led by a certified forest bathing guide.

Walk slowly and stop often. This is exactly what I neglected to do on our visit to Bald Hill. Take time to relax and to notice the environment. Spend time under the trees, soaking up the smells of the forest. Dr Li’s research has found that the chemicals released by the hinoki cypress tree boosts the immune system.

If there are places to sit quietly under the trees, take advantage of them. Listen to the sounds of the forest, observe the birds overhead, the plants growing on the forest floor, and insects scurrying along fallen branches and leaves.

Take a few slow, deep breaths and notice the smell of the forest. Those smells include the beneficial chemicals released by the trees.

Me, I’m wishing I’d been a bit more conscious of the world around me as I walked between those raindrops, trying to keep up with my energetic teens. 

How about you? Have you had an opportunity to spend more time outdoors this month?

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at  www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

 

Sleep, sleep debt, and mental health

a woman lays face down on a bed that is covered in a white sheetLack of sleep, also known as sleep debt, affects both our physical and mental health.  Studies show that sleep debt affects numerous parts of our body, including our brain. In our brain, lack of sleep actually causes brain activity to slow down.  

Sleep cycles at my house are dramatically different in the summer than during the school year.  With a house full of tweens and teens, removing the need to get up in the morning has invited my teens and tweens to stay up long past their typical bedtime.  

They stay up until midnight, then sleep in the next day.  Sometimes I find myself insisting they get up as the clock chimes noon.  Yesterday we dragged the 14-year-old out of bed at 10:30am for a family trip to the blueberry patch.  He was not pleased. He complained about feeling rushed out the door. He slumped into his seat in the car, intent on ignoring those around him. But the ride out helped improve his mood.  By the time we were all in the berry patch he had waded through the worst of his sleep deprivation. 

We all know what not getting enough sleep does to us the next day.  We are grouchy. Moving through the day feels like swimming against the current.  It’s hard to get things done. We are short with the kids, tend to eat even though we are not hungry, and have no motivation for exercise.

That is not a surprise to researchers who study what lack of sleep does to people. 

Describing one study, Yuval Nir, a sleep researcher at Tel Aviv University said, “We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity. Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”  

You are not imagining things – when you are tired you really do think more slowly.

What’s more, not getting sufficient sleep for long periods of time also reduces mental and emotional resilience.  Lack of sleep can lead to negative thinking and emotional vulnerability and can make problems with anger, depression or anxiety worse.

A survey of sleep studies done by the Department of Research at the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences & Psychology notes, “Sleep is an essential part of our lives. The typical person needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night to maintain peak mental and physical health.”

They continue, “Less than seven to eight hours of sleep can be harmful to human health. Getting less than adequate sleep is known as sleep deprivation. When an individual has multiple consecutive days of sleep deprivation, they enter “sleep debt,” which is a cumulative effect of insufficient sleep for any period of time. The effect of sleep deprivation on mood has been well-documented. The changes in mood that have been linked to sleep deprivation include anxiety, depression, mood swings, etc.

Sleep deprivation appears to impact adults, adolescents, and children in similar ways. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate pre-existing mood disturbances, such as anger, depression, and anxiety, and can lead to confusion, fatigue, and lack of vigor. Even just one sleepless night correlates with these changes in function.”

How much sleep do you need?

It’s not always easy to get as much sleep as we should. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Recommended nightly sleep is 10 hours for teens and between 10 and 13 hours per night for children over the age of 3.  (Children under 3 need even more.) Missing even 15 minutes of sleep each night can accumulate over time and result in sleep debt which affects both mental and physical health.

So how do you take corrective action if you or your children are suffering the effects of too little sleep?  Sleep experts recommend:

  1. Rather than sleeping later, try going to bed earlier each night.  Going to bed at the same time each night, as well as following the same routine getting ready for sleep, can help with falling asleep.
  2. Optimize the sleeping environment by eliminating electronics (tv, ipads, phones, laptops) in the bedroom.
  3. Consider room darkening shades and motion-sensing nightlights to minimize the amount of ambient light in the room overnight.
  4. Lower the temperature of your sleeping environment. Body temperature drops as we sleep, so the optimal temperature for the bedroom is between 65 and 68 degrees overnight.
  5. While naps can help reduce the total amount of sleep debt, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Adults should limit naps to a 20-minute catnap or a 60-90 minute power nap. Any more can create problems getting to sleep later in the day.  

Want to know more about the physiological effects of sleep debt?  Check out this article from LiveScience.com.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

The Link Between Food and Mental Health

Family eating healthy food at a tableThe choices we make when we eat affects more than just our weight, heart, and  physical health. The role of nutrition in mental health has been shown to be just as important.

Studies of diet and exercise for mental health have shown a significant link between food and mental health.  What we eat can affect our mood, how we feel, and how well we cope with stress in life. Says Dr. Eva Selhub,  “Think about it. Your brain is always “on.” It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. 

This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. 

Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”

For many years I worked in an office, surrounded by others, all of us in cubicles. I had a cup of coffee at home, then another when I got to work.  I worked productively throughout the morning, which I attributed to being a “morning person”. I was always productive and full of energy at the start of the day.

After lunch I resumed work, a little less energetically. By 3pm I’d hit an energy low. Problem solving became more difficult.  So I’d have a diet cola mid-afternoon. It gave me a boost for the last stretch of the workday.

I’d commute home, have dinner, and by 8pm I hit another low.  My brain was mush and I was exhausted. Every day was the same – clear headed and mentally energetic in the morning, brain fog by 3pm, caffeine-assist mid-afternoon, and crash by 8pm.

But then, during the height of popularity for detox ‘cleansing’, I did a 3 day juice ‘cleanse’ over a weekend.  I spent the weekend with a classic caffeine withdrawal (excruciating) headache. But by Monday morning I was on the other side and the headache was gone.  I hated the idea of having endured that headache for nothing. So I decided to stay off the caffeine.

The impact of that one small change in my diet was astonishing.  Without the caffeine, my energy level for the entire day remained steady.  My brain was fully functioning all the way to bedtime. I wasn’t crashing mid-afternoon, so didn’t need the soda to make it to the end of the work day.  I got to the other side of the dinner hour and still had mental and physical energy. It was amazing to enjoy the evening, instead of watching the clock as I held up my weary head at least as long as the kids were still up.

I was amazed at how the caffeine I’d been drinking – just two cups of coffee in the morning and a soda in the afternoon – had impacted my mental and physical health for the entire day.  I was happier and healthier without the caffeine.

What we eat really does affect how we feel and how well we cope.  Says licensed nurse Carolyn Denton, “The food we eat gives our bodies the “information” and materials they need to function properly. If we don’t get the right information, our metabolic processes suffer and our health declines.  If we get too much food, or food that gives our bodies the wrong instructions, we can become overweight, undernourished, and at risk for the development of diseases and conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease.

Functional Medicine practitioners examine the role of nutrition in chronic disease, they look at multiple systems, such as the digestive system, the immune system, and the detoxification system, because of the interconnections between those systems. For instance, because 80% of the immune system is contained in the gastrointestinal system, a person’s issues with immunity could be related to faulty digestion.”

Many studies have also looked at the impact of nutrition on young children.  A review of the research done in 2014 found that a poor diet is linked to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.   

They conclude that there is an important relationship between diet patterns or quality and mental health early in life.  The evidence also indicates that what we – and our children – eat may play an important part in preventing or managing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and dementia.

Says the UK Mental Health Foundation, “Just like the heart, stomach, and liver, the brain is an organ that requires different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy.” 

Included in this report is a chart of these essential nutrients, the impact they have on our mental health, and the foods that can increase their presence in our bodies.  (see sidebar)

Not surprisingly, good nutrition includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, meat, fish and dairy.  These foods, known to benefit our heart and liver, also benefit our minds, memory, and emotions.  

And while a healthy diet helps everyone’s mental health and brain function, for infants and children under the age of 3, whose bodies and brains are growing more rapidly than they ever will again, good nutrition also feeds their ability to learn, setting them up for a lifetime of benefit.