Health journalist Alex Galbinski (@AlexG_journo
) asks the experts for eight steps parents can take to safeguard their child’s health for the future.
- Instil a good sleep routine
Getting enough shut-eye is crucial for anyone’s overall mental and physical health, but, significantly, children also perform better at school when they have enough quality sleep.
‘As children get older, help them understand why sleep is so key for their wellbeing, and support them with strategies to get a good night’s sleep,’ suggests Jenny Stephenson, chartered educational psychologist and director of HappySleepers (@HappySleepersUK)
‘Promote good sleep hygiene by supporting a consistent bedtime routine – limit sensory overload and multi-tasking in the lead-up to bed, and aim for a routine that helps the brain and body to wind down.’
- Set parent-child boundaries
Rosalie Ajzensztejn, founder of parentcounselling.co.uk says parents shouldn’t be worried about setting boundaries, as studies show that children need rules.
‘Parents often feel the need to be their child’s friend. This is not our role. We need to be the adult in charge, but in a calm and friendly way,’ she explains. ‘Children feel more emotionally secure when there are consistent boundaries in place.’
- Look after their emotional health
Research suggests that a child’s emotional health is much more important to their satisfaction levels as an adult than other factors, such as wealth and intellectual performance .
Parenting author Liat Hughes-Joshi (@liathughesjoshi) says it’s easy to focus on academic skills and extracurricular activities, but mental health is more important.
‘We need to equip our children with resilience and positivity, as well as coping mechanisms when they do feel stressed or anxious,’ she recommends. ‘They will inevitably face challenges in life and we can do our best to help prepare them for these.’
The NHS has some helpful tips on how to help children tackle anxiety, where you can also find guidance from Paul Stallard, professor of child and family mental health at the University of Bath.
‘The tendency is to say, if you're worried about that sleepover, don't go,’ he says. ‘But what you're doing is saying, if you get anxious about something, it means you can't do it.
‘It's more helpful to say, 'I hear that you're worried about this. What can you do that's going to help?' Focus on exploring solutions with your child, instead of just talking about all the things that could go wrong.’
- Build a supportive connection with your child
There is a proven positive connection between how emotionally invested a parent is in their child and the child’s emotional wellbeing.
Therapeutic coach Eve Menezes Cunningham (@WellbeingEve), author of 365 Ways to Feel Better and founder of feelbettereveryday.co.uk, agrees that it’s critical to make time for children’s emotional needs.
‘As adults, even when we're busy, we can still take the time to listen to little ones, to respect their wishes as far as possible,’ she explains. ‘Often it will save time long term as the more we do it with infants, the better they will be able to self-soothe in the future.’ In fact, experts agree that children are more likely to learn how to be emotionally mature, caring and respectful if they are treated with care and respect.
Children’s coach and author Naomi Richards (@thekidscoach) agrees, saying parents must be one step ahead. ‘Parents should try to make time for their children and connect with them on a deeper level,’ she recommends. Naomi suggests taking the time to read school newsletters and considering how your child could be affected by the news they contain.
- Don’t be afraid to discuss everything
Educational consultant Dr Kathryn Weston (@parentengage), of Keystone Aspire, believes you must allow your children to discuss everything, no matter how difficult or unpleasant. ‘Family communication keeps children emotionally well, safe and resilient,’ she emphasises. ‘Having open and transparent communication with children about everything is crucial.’
She believes dinner table conversations are one of the greatest things parents can offer. ‘For example, parents could be having conversations about how their day was, modelling how they coped with things they struggled with in the workplace or in relationships. ‘You’ll be bringing in social and political issues and allowing teenagers to find their voice within family life. All of these things encourage their sense of self.’
- Consider their digital environment
As internet usage is now more popular for children than television, experts say the biggest challenge is to ensure they are ‘digitally hygienic’.
‘Children must be able to use the internet safely, but, equally, as they move into the teenage years, they must be able to decipher between false and genuine news and be critical of what they read,’ Kathryn explains.
She is adamant children should not be allowed technology in their bedroom at night, to prevent problems with sleep and anxiety.
Managing your child’s use of technology will not only improve their sleep patterns, it could also help them with their future development. ‘They also need to be taught about the image they present of themselves online, which is really important for future employability,’ Kathryn adds.
- Teach them about good nutrition
Michaela Wright, school food adviser and founder of Apple of My Eye (@appleofmyeyepl), explains: ‘Teaching young children to eat and cook healthily provides them with the building blocks towards lifelong commitments to healthy lifestyles.
‘If children do not appreciate any form of grown, caught or reared food, it’s an area of ignorance that can have a massive detrimental effect on their whole wellbeing.’
- The importance of active play
British Heart Foundation researchers found that children who are physically active are happier and more confident .
Review author Professor Charlie Foster reported: ‘The positives of exercise on children’s mental wellbeing are less well known than the physical benefits. The evidence showed a strong link between physically active children and improved self-esteem, confidence, attention span and even academic achievements.’
One way to encourage physical activity is through play. An active playtime has been linked to health and developmental benefits in children , and encouraging your child to play can also allow you a few minutes to yourself.
While there are no guarantees when safeguarding a child’s emotional and physical health, teaching good habits and staying emotionally available throughout their early years is likely to set them up for a better future.
 Richard Layard, Andrew E. Clark, Francesca Cornaglia, Nattavudh Powdthavee, and James Vernoit, 2014. WHAT PREDICTS A SUCCESSFUL LIFE? A LIFE-COURSE MODEL OF WELL-BEING, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4240315/
 Public Health England, 2015. Study finds physically active children are happier and more confident, GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/study-finds-physically-active-children-are-happier-and-more-confident
 Tim Gill, 2014. The Play Return: A review of the wider impact of play initiatives, Children’s Play Policy Forum, https://childrensplaypolicyforum.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/the-play-return.pdf