As a mental health therapist that works with many children, I see the 3 As on the rise (autism, ADHD, and anxiety). I have seen significant improvements in children with holistic lifestyle changes. I will outline some suggestions that I have found to be helpful.
1. Get a neuropsychological evaluation. This will help with an accurate diagnosis and suggestions for a treatment plan. Unlike psychological testing, neuropsychological testing incorporates other possible neurological issues that may be causing or affecting mental health symptoms.
2. Find a therapist that is familiar with seeing children. Counselling can help your child learn coping skills, improve self-esteem and help parents with behaviour management.
3. Find out if your child qualifies for an educational or behaviour plan at school. Specific interventions may increase your child’s chances of becoming successful and enjoying school.
4. Stick to a daily routine. Children feel safer when their environments are predictable and safe. A consistent routine helps significantly with this as your child will know what to expect in their day. This is especially important with anxiety.
5. Start a behaviour chart. This will positively reinforce improvements which will help with motivation and self-esteem. The key is to remain consistent with both implementation and rewards.
6. Limit electronics. Children today spend way too much on electronics which are stimulating instead of calming. It also takes them away from time outside and socializing which are important for healthy development. Social media can also be very stressful for children and often they are not mature enough to handle the dangers of it. Limit to an hour a day as a reward for completing homework and chores. Do not allow before bed as it can affect sleep. Take them away before bed and do not leave them in their room.
7. Make sure your child is getting adequate sleep. Lack of sleep is the biggest trigger for anxiety and ADHD. Children with autism and Asperger’s almost always have anxiety as well. Have your child go to bed at the same time each night and engage in something relaxing 30 minutes before. Wake them up in the morning with enough time to not be rushed and engage in a relaxing activity after getting ready if they experience anxiety in school.
8. Have your child engage in regular exercise. Exercise is as effective as medication for mood and anxiety. Exercise naturally releases serotonin and helps sleep. Sports are a great source of socialization and self-esteem especially if your child has learning issues at school.
9. Cut out processed foods. Children need real whole foods for nourishment. Their brains are still growing and rely on this. Processed foods contain chemicals that our bodies do not know how to process. Many mental health disorders have been linked to a leaky gut which processed foods can lead to. Food allergies undiagnosed can also cause mental health symptoms. Look into the GAPs diet which is a gut-healing diet used to heal mental illness. This is an intensely difficult diet so if it is too overwhelming try switching to a complete whole foods diet eliminating gluten and dairy first.
10. Get a medication evaluation. I have seen many children benefit significantly emotionally and academically from medication. However, medication does not come without its side effects. I prefer to use it as a last case resort because often it is not needed if the above steps are put into place. The medication acts like a band-aid not addressing the root of the problem. It is also an option to help temporarily while the other healthy lifestyle steps are being put into place.