Life is stressful, even when you’re a child, so it’s important to teach children about mental health. It’ll help protect them from developing mental health issues growing up as well as when they’re an adult running around doing boring work stuff. Growing up, I suffered from extremely poor mental health because of racial abuse. I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t affected by poor mental health, and I’m still dealing with the fallout from my childhood decades later. So yeah, it’s important to teach children about mental health.
Children And Mental Health
We like to think we can protect our children from every little thing, including anything that might affect their mental health. But that’s just not possible. Children can, and do, suffer from mental health problems, because I wasn’t the exception to the rule as a child.
Some people might think that if children do have a brush with poor mental health that it’ll just be mild or they’ll bounce back, but often that isn’t the case. I was suicidal by the time I was eight-years-old. Just like any adult, we won’t bounce back without the right support.
Around 60 years ago, physicians dismissed the existence of significant depressive disorders in children, believing children lacked the mature psychologic and cognitive structure necessary to experience these problems (Son and Kirchner, 2000). Since then, evidence has showed that children and young adults experience mental health problems, which I can attest to.
The rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm in children and young people are rising, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Children dealing with mental health issues can see their academic performance suffer, especially if compounded by the stress to do will in their mountain of tests. Although this could be the proverbial chicken and the egg problem.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Mental Health Foundation has found that the stress of living through the pandemic has taken its toll on children and young adults as well. My partner has told me about how one of their friend’s children is struggling with the pandemic and showing signs of generalised anxiety. So it’s more important than ever to teach children about mental health.
Talking to children about mental health will help them recognise issues within themselves and it’ll help teach them how to better understand how others might feel. It’ll also provide them with valuable skills which they can benefit from for the rest of their lives, which hopefully they’ll also pass on to their children if they have them.
The belief that we’re somehow protecting children because we think they’re too young to learn about mental health couldn’t be further from the truth. You’re doing them a disservice because poor mental health will come for our children if you like it or not. The earlier children learn about mental health, the better. School life is stressful too, just like work, except you can also have bullying and puberty thrown into the mix. Poor mental health doesn’t discriminate by race, gender, socioeconomic status, or age.
We teach children how to tie their shoes, clean their teeth, and wash their faces, so let’s teach them other important life skills. Let’s help all children to become unaware of what mental health is and how they can express their mental health concerns.
Talking To Children About Mental Health
An important step to talking about mental health with children is to bring it down to a level they can understand. You can do this by talking to them about how they can sometimes have sad days and happy days. You can also use yourself as an example so you can provide them with appropriate examples of how you’ve had happy and sad days. Being open about like this will help remove the stigma of mental health, allowing the children to feel safe about sharing their own feelings.
Another method you can use when talking to children about mental health is to relate it to physical health to help them understand. For example, you could have a conversation about how your heart beats changes when running around and when you’re scared, both causing the heart to beat faster. This will then allow you to talk about how your heart can beat faster from feeling like you’re scared, without something scaring you. Now you can explain to them that this is called anxiety and that some people can feel this way most days, often without knowing why.
What Can Influence Children’s Mental Health?
Below are some basic talking points you can use to talk about what things might affect any child’s mental health to help them understand.
- Fighting and falling out with your friends.
- Finding school work difficult.
- Struggling with homework.
- Being worried about the health of a family member or friend.
- Being bullied and/or cyberbullied.
- Having close friends to talk to.
- Having a teacher or other staff member at school you can go to.
- Spending time with your family.
- Having hobbies or enjoying your interests.
- Eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep.
8 Self-Care Ideas For Children
Here are eight self-care ideas you can do with your children or you can teach your children to do on their own.
Teach children to set themselves little goals to achieve or get them to ask for tasks they can complete. This will help give them a sense of purpose and achievement. For example, you could start the weekend off by asking your child what they’re going to do today and then help create goals based on their reply.
Having a laugh
Laughter is the best medicine, as they say, so help your children to enjoy a good laugh. You can do this by sharing jokes, having a face-pulling contest, or watching your child’s favourite show with them. Remember, all the jokes you know from childhood will be new to them, so it’s your time to shine.
Embrace your child’s imagination by doing some cloud spotting. It’s pretty simple, just watch the clouds go by and talk about what shapes the clouds form. This will help you kid to relax and take their mind off of things. I still find myself doing this as adult sometimes.
Staying on the subject of imagination, allow your children to engage in creative activities so they can enjoy crafting or painting as a way to express themselves and to relax. I used to love drawing, painting, and generally creating stuff as a child.
Ask for help
Teach your child that it’s ok to ask for help by creating a safe space at home. Also, lead by example by showing you’re also ok with asking for help. Showing it’s ok to ask for help by leading by example can easily be done. Just ask for help from your partner around them and even ask your children for help. You’ll also need to make sure you don’t shut down your children’s attempts to ask for help as well, or eventually they’ll stop asking.
Engaging in any family activity will help with your child’s mental health. The activities you choose can be anything like going on a walk, playing a spot, yoga, exercising, breathing exercises, or playing a board game.
Rather than just reading stories with your children, which you can also do, make stories up together or take turns making up stories. You could ask your child to create a storybook which they can take you through before bedtime. Keeps them busy, it’s creative, and you get to share a story together.
If yours or any child needs help to calm down, get them to imagine their favourite place, think of their favourite things, or name an animal for each letter of the alphabet in order. These simple activities should help distract them in a similar way to using the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique.
4 Ways To Improve Children’s Mental Wellbeing
This idea comes courtesy of ‘Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World’ via HuffPost. This is a simple visual task you can do with your child to help explain complex emotions and why holding them in is bad.
To start, you’ll need to draw a volcano. Then tell your children how everyone can experience different emotions during the day, but if we hold those emotions in instead of expressing them, it can be bad. Tell them the emotions stay within the volcano bubbling away and building up. Explain to the children that the longer the emotions are allowed to build up, the more likely it’ll erupt. Then say something like:
“Boom! And just like a volcano, when you erupt, you’ll start crying, screaming, and kicking. But if you express or talk about your emotions before that happens, then you can avoid the eruption”.
We all like getting praise. However, if it’s a lie, then it can often make us feel worse, rather than better. Therefore, provide children with genuine, realistic praise to build their self-esteem. Having healthy self-esteem helps children navigate situations that might make them feel bad. Also, it’s a good idea not to offer praise for stuff that’s out of the child’s control or say stuff like “you’re the smartest kid in school”, instead, praise their efforts. That’ll motivate them to keep making the effort. Being told you’re the smartest kid in school can lead to pressure to live up to that, something I covered in my imposter syndrome article about how such thoughts can undermine someone’s wellbeing.
Give opportunities for independence
A part of growing up is learning to be independent and children get a sense of confidence when they can do things for themselves. Create opportunities where children can do things for themself so they can enjoy a little confidence boost.
Children can easily become frustrated, especially when they think they can’t do something or if they keep failing at something. While it might be tempting to tell your children that they’ll be good at it in the end, it might be better to ask them how they could get better at it. By doing that, you’re getting them to practice problem solving. Plus, you can nudge them in the right direction without doing it for them.
Other Ways To Support Children
One thing I wish was taught at my school growing up would have been acceptance. Talk to children about how it’s ok to be different and how we’re all worthy of love and support. You can do this by talking about LGBTIQ+ children, children from different cultures and ethnic groups, children who are refugee and asylum seekers, children with disabilities, and children who’ve been adopted. Talking about how they’re the same but different, and how that’s ok, is better than raising them to be colour blind. Be sure to talk about the benefits of living in a diverse community and how this diversity adds to the community, making them better.
Another thing you could do is talk about how people can be good and bad at different things. Using yourself as an example, you could list some things you’re good and bad at that they’ll understand. Then you can ask the children to make their own lists. This has the add benefit of allowing you to identify any areas they might need extra support with.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences with childhood mental health and talking to children about mental health in the comments section below as well. If you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up to my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new posts by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom left corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Son, S. E., & Kirchner, J. T. (2000). Depression in children and adolescents. American family physician, 62(10), 2297-2308. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/1115/p2297.html.