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How journal writing can help your child’s mental health

How journal writing can help your child’s mental health
WATCH ABOVE: At a time when many children spend their free time online, advocates for children's mental health are encouraging a pursuit several thousands of years old. Laurel Gregory explains.

“Amanda and me went to the park.” That is the entirety of my very first journal entry. Riveting, isn’t it?

As simple as my first entry was, in the years to come journal writing would offer a strong foundation to explore writing, storytelling and creativity (sprinkled with a good dose of torturous teenage heartbreak).

Researcher and educational consultant Linda Stade says there is much more to the practice than we realize. In fact, the very act offers many benefits to children’s mental health.

READ MORE: How to teach your kids emotional intelligence and life skills

I recently spoke with Stade via Skype from her home in Perth, Australia.

Laurel Gregory: What are the benefits of children journalling?

Linda Stade: There’s lot of benefits of journalling. When kids are in that highly reactive state and feeling really overwhelmed by their emotions, or a traumatic experience, journalling can help. What it does is it activates the narrative function in our minds, which means we take events and feelings and we put them into an order, into a story with a beginning and a middle and an end. That gives us a sense of cause and effect. It also gives us a bit of distance from those emotions and feelings so that we can make sense of them. There’s been research that shows it has a physiological effect. So it has an impact on our heart rate. That of course doesn’t mean that it’s curing the problem. But it is a very useful tool.

LG: How often should parents encourage their children to journal?

LS: I think it’s a really good habit to get into.

It’s like anything; it’s uncomfortable to start with. You know – jogging never feels good the first couple of days.

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They might feel a little stilted and uncomfortable with it. But if you can get them to journal five minutes a day, and then build it up to 10 minutes a day, research shows that the optimal benefits you can get are from about 20 minutes a day. So if you do that. It will have an impact.

READ MORE: Alberta’s Dr. Mom writes evidence-based blog for parents

LG: What age would you recommend starting?

LS: Quite young because you don’t have to be writing anything highly intellectual or coherent even. Lots of people journal in different ways so you can journal with pictures. Little kids can draw their feelings or draw their experiences. You can journal with photographs. I’ve got a friend who takes a positive photograph every day and what that does is it draws her attention to the good things in life and that not only makes her positive each day, but when she is experiencing down days, she has all of those images to draw on and all of these good feelings to remind her that life is generally good. Yes, we have bad days but there are lots of good things as well.

We have a natural negativity bias, which means that we do naturally look for the negatives in our environment and that’s a survival instinct. We look for threat because in the cave days there’s no point in looking at a beautiful sunset if a saber-toothed tiger is going to come and attack you at the same time. So, we look for the negatives. But you can train yourself out of that by constant mindfulness and these sorts of practices that focus on the positive. I think they are really important for kids, especially in this era of high anxiety.

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READ MORE: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’: Calgary dad’s simple message aimed at tackling mental health stigma

LG: What time of day would you suggest?

LS: I was an English teacher so I used to journal at the beginning of each lesson, not only to calm them down after lunchtime or after recess, but also to get their creativity flowing. If they are given a set time, sometimes you give them a prompt, sometimes you just let them write whatever they want and that’s sort of prompting them to start thinking and playing with their language and being a bit more creative. They loved it and they got into the habit of just coming into the room and starting straight away without me asking them to. They found it very soothing. As for a time of day that is optimal? Probably morning. Especially in terms of gratitude. I think if we wake up in the day and we are able to say this, this and this are good in my life so I am going to face the day. You know, positive mindset.

End of the day is also really useful. I journal at the end of the day because in a way you put down your mental load.

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All of the things that have been bothering you during the day, or the little squirmy idea that you can’t get out of your mind, if you can get that down on paper, even just in a list, then you are putting down that mental load. You don’t have to worry about it for a while. You don’t have to remember it even until the next day. That allows you to relax and sleep. And sleep, as we know, has so many positive mental health benefits for us. If we are not well rested, things are difficult to do.

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READ MORE: Sleep deprived? What missing too much sleep might be doing to your body

LG: How can writing help with self-regulation?

LS: In teaching kids to manage their emotions, what you need to do is make them aware of their emotions so they need to be able to see them and journalling is a good way of doing that. So they get their ideas down on paper and then you can have those conversations about, ‘How does that make you feel? What’s going on for you? Where can you feel it in your body? Does that make you feel funny in your tummy? Does it feel tight in your chest? Does it make you feel really happy and smiley?’ And then you can give them words because one of the problems with kids expressing their emotions and self-soothing is that they don’t know how to first identify what they are feeling and then label it. So it’s a really good step in teaching kids is to self-regulate.

READ MORE: Self-regulation: What adults can learn from these zen pre-kindergarteners

LG: Do you journal?

LS: Yes. I started journalling in boarding school. I went to boarding school when I was 12 and I was terribly homesick and also going through the whole teenage angst that we all go through. I had an English teacher who prompted me to start journalling and I wrote about the things that I felt every day. I found my journals recently when I was cleaning out my back shed and I was reading them. I was quite mortified at my little teenage self. I was so earnest but I could see myself processing my experiences and coming to terms with who I am and what was happening in my life and that’s quite cool.

LG: Is this practice particularly important at a time when so much of children’s free time is spend online?

LS: I think so. I think the actual act of handwriting or printing the journal is really important. They’ve shown that the way we retain information and the way we process information on handwriting is quite different to when we type. So I think it is great for developing fine motor skills in that practice but it’s also fantastic for mental development and processing.

For more examples of ways journalling can benefit your child’s health and well being visit Linda Stade’s website.

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