Mental Health for the Whole Family

Everything is a coping skill. Deep breaths before a stressful interaction, “time outs,” even avoiding conversations by staring at our phones—these are all coping skills. Some we learn from our therapist or teacher. Some we see on TikTok. 

Certain coping skills are better than others. But instead of labeling them “good” or “bad,” what if we looked at the need those coping skills are trying to meet? What if we created family routines and rituals so we could grow and learn together? How might this impact the mental health of our families? I’m a licensed therapist who often treats families, and these are questions I have asked myself—not just professionally, but personally.

Here are a few activities and coping skills that are appropriate and encouraged for the whole family:

Belly Breathing

All ages (Infants can be held or laid on caregiver’s tummy during exercise.)

Lay down on your back or sit comfortably in a chair. Place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Focus on expanding your stomach with air on your inhale and push it all out through your exhale. Repeat several times to increase a deeper sense of relaxation and calm. This is an excellent practice before bed or after overwhelming stress or upset. It can be a great way to start your family’s day. 

Creating Worry Stones

Ages 4-plus

Grab some oven-bake clay in a variety of colors. Each family member chooses a color or two that they associate with happiness, calm or relaxation. Roll your clay into a small ball, allowing the colors to merge together. Flatten your ball out and place your thumbprint in the center. Following the directions on the package, bake your creations and allow them to cool. Now everyone has a small reminder to pause in those moments of overwhelm, stress or sadness. Take a breath and remind yourself that you are safe. 

Mood Check-In

Ages 3-plus

Create a board that includes each family member’s name—pets included, if you’d like—and decorate with colors and stickers. Craft a variety of paper emojis and make sure each family member has one complete set (sad, happy, excited, tired, worried, etc.). Every morning, each family member places an emoji next to their name to indicate how they’re feeling. Update your emoji after you get home for the day. Take a moment to check in and see where every member of your family ranks. Is someone having a particularly good day? A really rough one? Take time at dinner or before bed to share the best and worst things from each person’s day. Talk about something you learned, or something you would like to try tomorrow. 

Tips for Effective Family Communication

  • Use “I” statements: “I felt (insert emotion) when (particular behavior happened).” For instance, “I felt ignored when you wouldn’t put your phone down while I was talking.”
  • Validate feelings. Emotions are not always factual but they are always valid. What we feel might not always seem reality-based. We can have big emotions and exaggerated responses, but there is a reason that we are feeling this way. 
  • Be aware of body language. If one family member sits and another stands during an argument, consider leveling the playing field. Have both sit down. A simple shift in physicality can lower the temperature of a disagreement. 
  • Seek to understand. Even with little ones. Being fully present in a conversation is not an easy thing to do—trust me, I do it for a living—however, the more we practice being fully engaged with our loved ones, our understanding of each other will deepen.

By taking these approaches, we remind ourselves and each other that we are all on the same team and play an important role. 

Communicating effectively and sharing our feelings can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. It can be hard to open up at first, especially on hard days. But by establishing space for every member to feel safe, heard and accepted—regardless of mood—we open lines of communication and give each other permission to simply be who we are. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health symptoms that interfere with daily life, please seek out help from a doctor or licensed mental health professional. 

Author

  • Lauren Diestelkamp

    Lauren is a licensed professional counselor at Family Support Services. She specializes in helping individuals, children, teens and adults heal from trauma. Lauren approaches her work from a trauma-informed lens and brings an eclectic balance of creativity and evidence-based therapeutic techniques. She has a passion for giving a voice to the voiceless and taking an active role in ending the stigma surrounding mental illness and domestic violence, as well as suicide. Lauren is a volunteer with the local LOSS team, is a nationally certified counselor, and is a member in good standing with the American Counseling Association.

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