How can we help the children in our lives cultivate mental and emotional resilience in the face of a global health crisis? This is the question facing parents, caregivers, and teachers everywhere. We may not have significant data regarding the impact of COVID-19 on minors yet, but the reports trickling in are cause for concern. Dr. Spinks-Franklin—a developmental behavioral pediatrician—recently spoke with the New York Times and shared that “parents are reporting an increase in anxiety levels for children who were already kind of anxious in their temperament, and kids who previously had not had anxiety have developed anxious behaviors.” She also reported seeing an increase in children struggling with fear of germs, fear of people, sleep, and depression.
This may sound overwhelming, but there is also good news. We do not need to be doctors, mental health professionals, or “super” Christians in order to promote mental health and wellbeing in our families and communities. In fact, there are simple practices that can make a big difference in children’s lives.
Let’s talk about the five ways to wellbeing. In 2008, a British think-tank was asked to survey a vast amount of literature in the field of positive psychology and identify the key themes that contributed to a person’s ability to “feel good” and “function well” in life. They found that much of the existing research fit into a few simple categories, which they termed the five ways to wellbeing. Since then, many other studies have validated these categories and demonstrated the effectiveness of the five ways—including several studies that specifically look at the positive impact of the five ways on children’s mental health.
Before we take a closer look at each of the five ways to wellbeing and how they can be incorporated into homes or classrooms, let’s address the question that comes up for most Christians when reading the results of secular research: Where is God in all of this?
Augustine was a fourth-century bishop and one of the greatest thinkers, writers, and pastors in the history of Christianity. He once said that all truth is God’s truth. (Well, we’re paraphrasing here; his actual quote is much longer!) Augustine was deeply committed to the idea of God’s sovereignty over creation. He was not surprised when secular scientists and philosophers proclaimed truths about the world—after all, they were simply discovering what God had originally designed—and he was even willing to embrace those truths to the degree that they revealed God’s glory as the Creator.
So what do the five ways to wellbeing reveal about God, and about us as his image-bearers? If we wanted to summarize, we could say the following: God has created us to grow and develop our minds (LEARN), hearts (TAKE NOTICE), bodies (BE ACTIVE), and relationships (CONNECT), and he has called us to bless others by sharing the fruit of this growth generously (GIVE).
Here are the five ways to wellbeing, then—five simple practices that can help the children in our lives feel good and function well. We’ve listed a few ideas for how to engage in these practices with kids, but feel free to take small steps, be creative, and discover what works in your context. This may mean prioritizing your own mental health! After all, one of the primary ways children learn is by observing the adults around them. If we are making room for the five ways to wellbeing in our own lives, then we can organically invite children into these practices.
When children encounter new information or learn new skills, their curiosity and confidence increase. While school is certainly an important avenue for education, there are many ways to incorporate learning into everyday life. Try asking children to participate in cooking different meals from around the world. Go on a virtual museum tour together, or check out the live cams from a zoo or nature reserve. Enroll children in lessons to learn a musical instrument or a foreign language. Memorize a poem together, or help them pick up a new hobby like knitting or fishing. Most importantly, give them lots of time for creative play. This is one of the primary ways that children explore the world, and research suggests it constitutes an additional and unique way to wellbeing.
Learning to recognize emotions is an important part of children’s social and emotional development. Additionally, giving children permission to name and express their emotions teaches them not to be afraid of their feelings. Even supposedly “bad” feelings can be shared, and often we feel a little better after someone listens to us with kindness. A feelings wheel is a great tool to help children begin noticing and naming their emotions, and it can open up important conversations.
If you want to incorporate some scripture in your use of the feelings wheel, consider looking at a few of the psalms with your kids and asking them how many emotions they hear in the text (Psalm 30 is a great place to start). The psalmist used worship and poetry to name and express their emotions before God, and this shows us that God cares about our feelings. Other fun ways to encourage social and emotional development might include painting or drawing a picture, going on a nature walk and collecting colorful flowers or leaves, playing a game of I Spy, or listening to music and identifying the different instruments.
Experts recommend that children engage in “60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.” Going on a family bike ride, taking part in team sports, or signing up for lessons like swimming or gymnastics are easy ways to get kids moving. If sports and classes aren’t available in your area due to health guidelines, there are also fun, free online videos that encourage children to be active. P.E. with Joe and GoNoodle are both great channels that introduce children to exercise. And don’t underestimate the value of a game of tag, a living room dance party, or a DIY obstacle course!
As we head into a seventh month of physical distancing, we are more aware than ever of the need for relational connection! This need is actually one of the most important ways that we reflect the image of God. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in eternal relationship, so we are created to be connected with God and with one another. Of course, connecting may look a little different at the moment. If children are missing significant adults, such as grandparents, teachers, aunts and uncles, or even beloved babysitters, consider arranging an outdoor gathering, like a picnic or barbeque. For younger kids who struggle to connect with adults or friends online, try introducing a few interactive games like Simon Says or a scavenger hunt during video calls. (This website has some great ideas.) Children can also make cards to send to loved ones, or bake goodies to share with neighbors and classmates. Finally, don’t forget the importance of connecting with God. Pray with the children in your life, read the Bible with them, and encourage them to ask questions about their faith.
Serving and sharing are additional ways that we reflect the image of God (Matthew 7:9-11). It may take some creativity, but it is possible to help even young kids practice giving. We can encourage the gift of kind words by starting a compliments club and challenging children to compliment one person each day. We can help children sort through outgrown clothes and toys to donate. We can ask children to create artwork and cards for elderly or sick community members. And we can remind children that a well-timed smile, hug, or “thank you” is a gift that warms the heart of any tired parent or caregiver!
 Perri Klass, M.D., “When Things Aren’t OK With a Child’s Mental Health,” The New York Times (August 10, 2020), accessed September 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/10/well/family/children-mental-health-coronavirus.html.  Saamah Abdallah, Gill Main, Larissa Pople, and Gwyther Rees, “Ways to well-being: Exploring the links between children’s activities and their subjective well-being,” The Children’s Society (December 2014), accessed August 30, 2020.  Augustine, On Christian Teaching 2.72.  See Saamah Abdallah et al., “Ways to well-being,” The Children’s Society (December 2014); Donna Ferguson, “Don’t turn your home into school… the Lego professor of play on lockdown learning,” The Guardian (April 21, 2020), accessed September 16, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/21/dont-turn-your-home-into-school-lego-prof-of-play-on-lockdown-learning?fbclid=IwAR3R7quDgG-1sZg30X_ioxRPLQ_rWKlDtIChu_NorF10uKfX5x-a_mAFFqQ.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018), 48.
Jane Born is a graduate of Regent College, where she completed an MDiv with an emphasis on mental health and spirituality. Jane has been involved in ministry for over a decade, and she currently serves as the Program Development Coordinator for Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.