Are You Talking About Mental Health with Your Children?

It’s been a tough year for children’s mental health. As a counsellor, I‘ve seen how lockdown and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 has left many children feeling anxious and overwhelmed. The long absence from their friends and school may be over, but this has posed new problems. Some have found it difficult adapting back to the busy school routine as the pandemic goes on, and I’ve seen an increase in referrals for children struggling with health and social anxiety. In addition, the raft of new, ever-changing rules and regulations, means schools are unable to provide the familiar setting that young people need to feel safe. This safety comes from consistency and routine, which are crucial to a child’s development and well-being. Without them, even the most resilient child will struggle, but for those already struggling with poor mental health, it can be overwhelming.

As parents, it can be difficult to know what to say or how to support our children when they’re finding things tough. Attitudes towards mental health have changed so much since we were children and navigating this new language can feel daunting. When our children come to us about feelings of anxiety or depression, or issues linked to social media, gender or sexuality, it can be difficult to know what to say. Most parents I speak to are keen to learn, but in some households this generational divide means talking about mental health is completely taboo. I’ve had many conversations with parents keen to refer their child, but confess in hushed tones that their partner thinks counselling is nonsense, or the child is just going through a phase.

To support young people, we need to let them know that no subject is off-limits and they can come to us with anything. So how do we remove the mental health taboo, and help them to build the resilience and self-esteem they need to thrive now, and in later life?

How can you help your children develop resilience in mental health?

Recognise when there’s a problem

Every child is different, but as the people who know them best, it’s usually parents who are quickest to recognise when there’s a problem.  While mood swings aren’t uncommon as young people move into their teens, a consistent change in behaviour – such as being more withdrawn or angry – can indicate a deeper issue. If they’re taking less interest in themselves or their friends, or if they seem overly nervous or tearful these could also be signs of a mental health issue. It could be anxiety, cyberbullying or anything in between. Understanding that there might be a problem is the first step towards being able to help.

Being open as a family

Silence is one of the biggest barriers to good mental health. Parents will often share details of their own mental health problems but tell me they’ve ‘protected’ the child from knowing about them. By hiding our own issues, or pretending we don’t all have down days, it adds to the stigma surrounding mental health. By discussing them, we’re  normalising these feelings and empowering children to talk about their emotions without feeling  ashamed. Once they’re out in the open, these issues will feel much less overwhelming and the young person will feel more able to overcome them. 

Be aware of potential triggers

There’s a myriad of reasons why children may struggle with their mental health, but there are some that we can help to minimise. Social media can be a huge trigger, but denying access will lead to confrontations and feelings of anger, frustration and isolation. With your child, agree realistic screen times and ways that you can monitor their online behaviour. Take an interest in what they’re looking at and who they’re talking to and let them know that they can tell you about anything that’s happening online. Other triggers may include social situations, exam pressure or even a phobia. By being curious and recognising when their feelings escalate, you’ll be able to explore the reasons together. Once the problem is out in the open, they’ll feel more able to face these challenges.

Adopt a ‘growth mindset’

In recent years, a ‘growth mindset’ approach has found its way into most forward-thinking schools. Its aim is to provide children with the resilience needed to overcome life’s challenges and setbacks by instilling a positive approach. ‘I can’t wait to solve this problem’ or ‘I can’t do this… yet’ are examples of how schools are putting an optimistic spin on feelings of failure.

As parents, we can adopt this language too. If we see our child is frustrated we can support them with ‘I love that you’ve kept going with that tricky problem’ or ‘you’re going to feel so great when you solve that challenge’. It can be harder to model this with our own behaviour, but it will make a huge difference. Adopting a tone of ‘right, finding my keys – I love a challenge’ may feel trickier than ‘I’m such an idiot, why am I always losing them?’ but by modelling this self-acceptance you’re encouraging self-esteem and resilience.

For this month’s World Mental Health Day there was unsurprisingly a huge emphasis on supporting children and young people through the stress of COVID-19. The government, schools, and health professionals play a role in this, but as parents we hold a lot of power. By making home a stigma-free space, looking out for signs of distress and promoting a growth mindset, we can give our children the gift of resilience, to face all life’s challenges.

Helen Spiers is mum to two boys and a Specialist Child and Adolescent Counsellor at Mable Therapy

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