Monkey See, Monkey Do

6 Simple Ways To Model Good Mental Health Practices For Your Kids

Kids imitate their parents. Show them what good attention to mental health looks like by embracing these habits.

by Katie Yockey
A dad with his child on his shoulders goes on a walk in a forest for his mental health.

Prioritizing your mental wellbeing can be hard — especially when you have kids. Between juggling work emails and dinner table meltdowns, maintaining positive mental health practices probably seems like one more task you just don’t have time for. But kids watch us, and they model our behavior. Taking care of your mental wellbeing is as important for them as it is for you, and if they see you letting your mental health slip, they may do the same.

“Psychologists have long known that our kids imitate us,” says psychologist Jeff Temple, Ph.D. “If we treat people with respect, they’ll likely treat others with respect. The same goes for how we treat ourselves and take care of our mental health.”

This doesn’t mean hiding your feelings or anger or frustration so that kids don’t imitate those emotions. According to child psychiatrist Neha Chaudhary, M.D., it’s about acknowledging the truth and showing the healthy way forward.

“Say you were late and missed an appointment. It’s okay to share something like, ‘Daddy is really frustrated right now, can you join me in taking some deep breaths to feel less frustrated?’” she says. “This tells your child that it’s okay to feel strong emotions, and there’s something you can do about it.”

Modeling healthy practices for our kids helps them establish their own mental health toolkit. So try experimenting with the following six techniques to manage your mental health — and pave a way forward for your kids to do the same.

1. Make Breathing Exercises A Norm

We all get stressed and anxious at times, and guided breathing exercises are an easy way to alleviate some of those negative feelings. It can be tricky to make breathing exercises part of your day, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed. But science shows that modeling this behavior benefits both you and your kids — it’s a win-win.

Why It Works: “Breathing exercises temporarily slow down the nervous system, which can help with heightened moods,” says family therapist Gayane Aramyan. “When a child’s emotions are regulated, you can discuss the upsetting situation.”

Breathing exercises are a well-researched, evidence-based tool for managing mental wellbeing. One study found that a regular, consistent program over eight weeks reduced anxiety levels in kids, while another supported its use as an acute way to manage emotions in particularly challenging settings.

How To Model It: When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, take a few minutes to unwind with a breathing exercise. You can do this in a self-guided manner by breathing in, holding your breath and counting to five, and slowly exhaling. But for a lot of people, it’s easier to use guided exercises in an app like Headspace or Calm. Both of these apps have versions specifically for children, so you and your kids can try them together.

2. Create A Daily Gratitude Practice

A daily gratitude practice doesn’t specifically target any single mental health challenge, but if you start adding a gratitude reflection to your day, you’ll likely notice changes in your stress levels and overall mood. Building the habit in your kids at a young age can help them gain necessary perspective on a lot of life’s setbacks.

Why It Works: “Research has shown that journaling about things that bring you joy or that you are grateful for can reduce depression and boost your mood,” says pediatrician Preeti Parikh, M.D. The key here is keeping things positive. According to this study, people who journaled about positive things had significantly lower levels of depression and perceived stress; those who wrote about neutral topics didn’t see the same benefits.

How To Model It: Although journaling is great, it can feel intimidating to many people, especially kids. Instead, Parikh suggests making a family gratitude jar. Pick out a cool jar, decorate it with your kids, and place it in a high-traffic part of the home that’s within reach of little ones. Make it part of your family’s daily routine to all put a gratitude message in the jar at a specific time of day, such as after school or before dinner.

3. Unwind By Doing Some Art

If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, taking a short break to draw or color is a helpful habit. Seriously. It may seem simple, but that’s part of its charm.

Why It Works: According to Aramyan, art activities, such as drawing and coloring have been shown to effectively lower stress levels. One study found, for example, that when children experienced sad emotions, drawing helped distract them from these feelings and improve their mood and wellbeing.

How To Model It: Easy. Color! Draw! The key here is to openly discuss your intentions and feelings while making art. For instance, after a long day at the office, try saying: “Wow, I had a busy and stressful day at work. I’m going to do some drawing to relax. How about we do it together?”

4. Go On A Daily Walk

According to Parikh, one of the best mental health practices you can demonstrate for your kids is daily movement. “Just a quick 20-minute walk can make a big difference in your mood and overall health,” she says. “Implementing daily family walks encourages movement and a positive mindset.”

Why It Works: Regular physical activity has a ton of benefits. Moving while outside is particularly beneficial for mental health. One large-scale study on children found that adventurous outdoor play was linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression.

How To Model It: Make regular exercise part of your routine, and emphasize the importance of doing it outdoors. Chaudhary recommends making it a family activity by going for a walk together and tying in aspects of mindfulness — for example, try encouraging your kids to focus on their senses by paying attention to what they hear, see, smell, and touch. You can also keep things simple by shooting hoops, playing catch in the yard, or stretching on the grass.

5. Limit Your Screen Time

Too much screen time can affect children's’ health in a range of ways, and mental wellbeing is no exception. The tricky part here? Setting a good example for your kids. It’s easy to be glued to your phone, so being intentional with screen time around them is a great way to model good mental health practices.

Why It Works: A heap of research supports the fact that too much time spent looking at screens isn’t good for us. According to one study, there’s a moderately strong association between screen time and depressive symptoms. Another study, focused on children, found that compared to kids who spent one hour or less on screens per day, those who clocked more than an hour were more likely to struggle with social competence, emotional maturity, cognitive development, and communication skills. This confirms what we already know — cutting screen time is pretty much always a good idea.

How To Model It: “If you want to limit your children’s time in front of the TV or computer, set a good example by limiting yours as well,” says Parikh. Yep — this means putting down your phone, too, at least until you can grab a minute alone or the kids go to bed.

6. Create A Designated Self-Care Corner

What’s a self-care corner? It’s a safe place to go when emotions are spiraling out of control or you need a little peace and quiet. A designated self-care or “calm corner” in your home is a soothing spot and the antithesis of a time-out. Although the self-care corner should be built around what’s best for your kids, demonstrating that you use it too is key to making it part of their own self-care routine.

Why It Works: “When your kiddos are in a stressful or highly emotional situation, it can be hard for them to think clearly,” says Chaudhary. “Having a physical prompt can help.” A self-care corner contains things that make your little one feel better, and its presence as a designated calm spot in your home will make it a safe, comforting place.

How To Model It: Making a self-care corner can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Try filling it with items like soft mats and pillows, comforting books, art supplies, and stuffed animals. For slightly older children, add sensory activities like Slinkies, fidget spinners, journals and colored pencils, and a list of mindfulness and breathing exercises. It’s important to involve your kids in the creation of this spot so that they’ll want to use it, and it should be tailored to their particular wants and needs.