When is the Right Time to Speak to Children about Mental Health?

When I spoke at the Exhale Mental Health Showcase in January 2018, the title of this blog was one of the questions asked by a member of the audience; and I'm so happy it was asked

All of the speakers at the event, who were sharing their own personal stories of mental ill health, said that having someone to speak to about what was happening to them, was invaluable. As a mental health professional, I agree that having someone to confide in, to reduce the isolating effects of mental health and to externalise your thoughts and feelings, can be the difference between decline and recovery.

Children and adults are no different in that, if they haven't had experience of sharing their thoughts and feelings or being validated by someone else, then they are likely to rely heavily on fantasy thinking. It could be that they imagine being laughed at, being told to stop being silly or they perceive that you have enough on your plate and it wouldn't be kind/nice to off-load onto you; that actually it would be selfish.

So, whilst us adults would feel better to walk straight through the front door and tackle any emotional or psychological difficulties our children are facing, it is important that we take fantasy thinking into account.

We can use other forms of communication that would allow us to tackle mental health and fantasy thinking more discretely; if the front door is locked, we need to find another way in right? Here are some ways we can give our children messages, which will encourage and instill confidence for them to talk:

Modelling

It's important that our children experience our emotions, our difficulties and our thought processes (obviously within reason), so that they see them as 'normal' and can see how speaking to someone helps you feel better and that sharing a problem can help you find a way out.

Accepting

Are we sometimes a little bit guilty of minimising our children's thoughts and feelings, because we've lost the ability to think and feel as a child. If we are, then we might be shutting down opportunities of communication, of exploring their world and for providing them with a new perspective to their problems.

If it doesn't feel nice for them to share their small stuff, they're not going to share their big stuff!

Mindset

As parents, we feel great pride when our children have done well, we might give them extra physical contact by hugging them tight, we may buy them a gift to show we're so proud of their achievements and we'll tell the world that our little cherub is awesome. What message does this give to children that aren't or don't feel like they're achieving; the children that feel sad a lot of the time or suffer with physical symptoms of mental health, such as tummy aches and head aches? We need a positive dialogue for this too. A dialogue that helps them process where they're at, what they need to feel better, what they could do and who they could speak to. It might be a conversation about foods that help regulate mood/feed our brains, or how exercise helps shift energy and how sunlight is much better for us than staying in; even if we don't feel like it. This establishes a growth mindset and it's a great skill to have.

No-one can make us talk and we can't make children and young people talk either. Day to day, we can show them that we value every part of them, that we too feel and think in ways that cause us distress at times, that sometimes we need help, that there are people in our lives that make us feel good and that if we want help, we have to let someone know. We can show them that a problem is a task, not the end of the road, that how we solved a problem last week, will come in really useful for the next.

It isn't just about talking at the right time, it's about creating safety, establishing safe relationships and giving permission; so they have real opportunities to talk about mental health and anything else important.