Good mental health allows young people to deal with the changes and challenges life throws at them and live their lives in a positive and meaningful way. It includes things like being able to work and study, deal with day-to-day life stress, feel connected to others, be involved in activities in the community and ‘bounce back’ when things go wrong.
Just like physical fitness, mental fitness takes regular effort. There are lots of things that family and friends can do to support a young person to look after their mental health. Here are some things you can encourage your young person to do to build their mental fitness every day.
One of the most effective ways to support young people to look after their mental health is to model healthy habits yourself, so it’s a good idea for you to practise some of these tips as well.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is really important for young people and their mental health. You can help them by encouraging regular sleep routines and gently helping them get up in the morning. Encourage them to switch off or reduce the time they spend on their phone or devices a few hours before bedtime. You can also help them to make their bedroom cool, quiet and dark during the night. See the headspace sleep fact sheet for more information and advice.
Setting goals and learning new things are really important for your young person’s mental health. You can help by talking to your young person about their interests and hobbies and encouraging them to take part in them. You may want to help them find a hobby group or learn more about a topic they are interested in. Helping them to set realistic and achievable goals, while celebrating their achievements, can be really empowering for them. Listening to their challenges and disappointments is also important.
Eating well can improve your young person’s mood, energy levels and general health and wellbeing. Cooking nutritious meals and encouraging your young person to fill up on good food (like veggies, fruit and whole grains) and drink plenty of water is good for their physical and mental development. This also teaches them set up healthy habits for their future.
Regular exercise can help your young person to sleep better, improve their ability to cope and boost their mood. Regular physical activity is also related to better wellbeing, which can lower depression and anxiety levels. Going for a walk with your young person can help increase their activity level and provides a great opportunity to talk. Supporting them to find a sport that they enjoy and encouraging active interests in your young person are also great ways to facilitate exercise.
Spending time with friends and family (including pets) and people in the community is an essential part of being human, and can really strengthen your young person’s mental health and wellbeing. Regularly spend time connecting with your young person by setting up an activity that you both enjoy – like a regular walk, a hot drink together after dinner or a drive. Ask questions and listen without judgement to your young person. You can also encourage and support meaningful and healthy friendships. Listen to their concerns about relationships and encourage opportunities for them to make new friends in the community.
Taking a moment to slow down things down is important for both physical and mental health. Encouraging regular relaxing activities, especially during stressful times, can help your young person develop a routine. There are many ways to relax – like having a warm bath, writing a journal, reading a book, listening to slow music, stretching or sipping a cup of tea.
You may want to learn about techniques to relax the body and manage thoughts and feelings, such as ‘progressive muscle relaxation’, ‘relaxation exercises’, ‘creative visualisation’, ‘mindfulness’ and breathing practices. A few websites and free apps that can help are listed here:
Learn the steps involved in progressive muscle relaxation and get tips on what to do if you’re not getting the hang of it.
Learn about lots of different types of relaxation exercises, including deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, creative visualisation and yoga.
Learn mindfulness meditation techniques to help reduce pressure and stress in your daily life.
Learn breathing exercises to help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Manage difficult thoughts and feelings
It can be difficult see your young person unhappy and to deal with the unpleasant emotions that they might have. You might feel guilty about them feeling this way – that you have done something ‘wrong’ or there was something you didn’t do for them. With the best of intentions, you might want to suggest another way for them to feel (e.g., ‘don’t worry’) or to try and make them ‘feel better’.
Jumping straight into ‘problem-solving mode’ or trying to shift their mood can lead them to believe that they are not being heard or understood, and can stop them opening up to you. By accepting their feelings and responding with a caring tone, you can help your young person feel understood and support them to come up with their own ways of managing difficult feelings.
Cut back on alcohol and other drugs
Family and friends play an important role in supporting healthy decision making when it comes to alcohol and other drugs. Talk openly to your young person about alcohol and other drugs, including the ways they can minimise risks.
The best way to send a message about alcohol is to model responsible drinking behaviour.
Ideally, we want to try and delay the age a young person starts drinking as long as possible but be prepared to talk about alcohol use early (e.g., when they start high school) and continue to raise the topic through adolescence and early adulthood. For more information on alcohol, see our alcohol fact sheet.
A problem can sometimes be too hard for your young person to solve alone. There may be times when support from family and friends is not enough and your young person needs to get professional support. Encourage them to see their general practitioner (GP), make an appointment to chat to someone at their local headspace centre or visit eheadspace for online and phone support.
Parents and carers of young people often neglect their own needs because they are busy looking after others, or because they feel guilty taking time for themselves. It is important that while you care for someone, you also look after your own mental health. This will encourage your young person to do the same and it will help you to re-charge and be more patient and less reactive. Reach out for extra support if you or other family members need it. Talk to someone you trust and seek professional help if necessary.
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 5 July 2017