We’ve all heard of attention deficit disorder, but have you ever heard of nature deficit disorder? I hadn’t either until I started reading about it from author Richard Louv.

He explains how scientists have shown that people who don’t spend enough time outside in nature have significantly higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, heart-related illness and obesity.

Now these are huge issues in teen mental health, and adults are constantly trying to work out how to relieve stress, lift mood, and help a child who is down. Dr Louv says that perhaps part of the solution is right outside our door.

Nature deficit disorder

Many of us have personally experienced how a walk outside or a swim in the ocean can shift our mood and perspective. However, this isn’t just anecdotal.

Research has repeatedly proven that time outdoors, particularly doing something physical, reduces stress, anxiety and depression which are the three biggest mental health challenges facing many teens.

In fact, being outside in nature can:

  • Lower levels of the stress-associated chemical cortisol.
  • Increase feelings of mindfulness, positivity and wonder.
  • Inspire gratitude and takes our attention off our individual problems and towards something bigger than ourselves. When we notice the beauty of the world around us, we naturally feel a sense of thankfulness and appreciation.

In one study, university students were sent into the forest for two nights under the stars, while others were put in a busy city hotel. Cortisol and serotonin levels were measured at the end of the experiment, showing a significant difference in those who had connected with nature and the outdoors from those who had remained inside.

As author Maggie Dent explains:

Outdoor play-experiences definitely contribute to better cognitive development in children. Free outdoor time promotes problem-solving, creativity, initiative to come up with their own games or scenarios, and this nature-time can even impact a person’s ability to concentrate.”

So the question is: how much time does your teen spend in nature? And is all their outdoor time in a competitive sporting environment, or do they get a chance to slow down, give their ears and minds a break and connect with nature?

Here are three simple things you can do to help your teen avoid nature deficit disorder.

1. Get outside as a family

It’s one thing to encourage a teen to go and do something good for themselves; but it’s a whole new thing to actually do it together.

Set aside 10 minutes an evening to go for a walk around the block. As a family.

We took advantage of the COVID lockdowns as a chance to try every bushwalk and waterfall in our LGA. Every weekend, we would tackle something new.

Read more: 
101 Family Bucket List Things To Do With Your Kids Before They Grow Up

2. Make time outdoors part of your rhythm

Years ago, one of my close friends bought a small fire grill. Every Sunday evening, the family gets away from screens and sits around the fire together. It’s part of their weekly rhythm and as their kids have gotten older, they all know that Sunday night is family-fire night.

I’ve made a personal habit of surfing every Tuesday and Thursday morning, and that rhythm is so refreshing and life-giving! If I don’t go, my wife will notice that I’m more agitated and stressed, and she’ll say, “You missed your surf. I can tell. Out you go.”

I counsel a 15-year-old who is part of Scouts, and another who is part of a wildlife club. These are such enriching weekly activities that help a young brain to be healthy and free.

3. Set limits to screens and present alternatives

Most of today’s teens will turn to the screen to connect and socialise. They plough hours and hours into video games, videos or socials. Unfortunately, the whole system is set up to keep them buried in their phone for longer and longer periods.

Teen watching porn

Many parents find the battle too hard and the boundaries become too difficult to enforce.

Yet, the limits are necessary, and teens still need your guidance and involvement. Most are smart enough to know that five to six hours of screen time per day is just unhealthy, but they don’t know how to stop it.

By creating alternatives, like swimming lessons, outdoor sport, exercise and adventure, you help them disconnect from the toxic world of screens and re-engage in nature.

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Dan Hardie is the founder of MyStrengths and a teen therapist. He created the online Raising Resilience Course as a way for families with teens to address the big issues and find peace. 

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