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Keeping Kids Mentally and Emotionally Healthy During Social Distancing

During this period of social distancing, one of the best things we can do for our kids' mental and emotional health is to help them have a fulfilling day every day. Consider, for example, the rise of depression and anxiety over the last 15 years or so. One part of that increase is because kids (and adults!) are filling their lives with more empty calories than they did in the past, and not getting the nutritional activities their souls need.

Imagine a kid who fills her morning and afternoon with plenty of creative, physical, mental activities like: practicing drawing, playing an instrument, making a scooter obstacle course, getting chores and homework done, reading a book for fun, building with Legos, and helping bake in the kitchen. Then in the late afternoon or evening, she enjoys some time using screens for entertainment. When her head hits the pillow that night, she will feel the satisfaction of a full day well spent. She will feel that her life has meaning and is going places.

Sure, it's hard to have a full day like this every day, and there are certainly periods of boredom and idleness for all of us in childhood. In fact, lazily enjoying a movie or video game can be good for us, if we're using it like a dessert at the end of a nutritious meal. But some kids make a habit of filling their days and weeks with desserty activities--hours and hours of video games, scrolling through social media posts, binge-watching shows--and not getting enough of the nutritious activities. When their head hits the pillow at night, they may feel an emptiness, not a fullness.

Some kids spend too much time watching others live their lives (on a screen) and not living their own. That's where some of that depression comes in. They aren't filling their lives with meaning and purpose, and may start to wonder if life is meaningless and pointless. It's a problem I've seen in counseling.

Help your children have a fulfilling day every day! Make a list of daily activities--a Recipe for a Great Day. Start the list with a few broad categories like "Creative/productive time" or "Outside/physical time." These are the core, nutritional activities their souls need. Include how long you'd like your children to do those activities.

Then finish your list with a few specific tasks you'd like them to remember to do each day like "Brush teeth" and "Feed cat." I like to add a specific skill or two for my kids to practice, like left-handed dribbling or drawing practice. Note: Chores probably fall under the "Service/work time" category, but I leave this category off my list because I find it more effective to list each specific chore.

Finally, check kids on their lists each day. Thinking of entertainment screen time as dessert, my wife and I save it for later in the day. So when my kids ask for screen time around 4:30 or 5, I say, "Let's look through your list." I try to be flexible about the exact amounts of time they put into each activity. The point is to make sure they've had a good, full day to that point.

My wife and I have been using these recipes each year during long summer days, and we have adapted them now for social distancing. They have been a tremendous help to my three boys. Here's a recipe template for you to download and customize:

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