We wouldn’t hesitate to talk to kids about their physical health. In our day-to-day lives, we teach kids more about living a healthier, more active lifestyle through food choices, picking up hobbies and clubs that focus on physical activity, and explaining how our actions and choices can impact our bodies physically. Why should it be any different when it comes to talking and teaching kids about mental health?
It’s easy to say that we should feel just as comfortable talking to children about mental health like we would physical health, but the truth of the matter is, it can still feel like a pretty daunting topic to bring up. Although the stigma around mental health has, in many ways, lessened over recent years, it can still be hard to know how much information children need, how much they will understand, and how much is too much.
Regardless of how much we want to protect them, the likelihood is, children are going to encounter their own struggles with mental health and well-being. Children’s charity Barnardos reported that almost half of all children aged 12-16 feel sad or anxious at least once a week, with an overwhelming 70% of 16-year-olds saying they felt this way once or more each week.
25% of children and teens reported feeling negative feelings daily, while 80% said they worried about the future. Talking about mental health doesn’t act like a ‘jinx’ – we aren’t making children more or less likely to encounter or experience it. We may, however, make them feel more comfortable and able to come to us to talk, start open discussions, and feel confident in speaking up when they feel or see something that concerns them.
By starting the conversation early, we can help young people get in the habit of having open, honest discussions in a relaxed setting. By talking about it, we begin normalising it. Mental health and mental illness shouldn’t be seen as ‘dirty words’ – they are part of our lives, and shouldn’t be treated as something ‘less than’ or ‘bad’.
We all have mental health, and many of us may struggle with ill mental health from time to time. By making sure they are not only prepared and know where they can turn if they need additional help, but also encouraging simple ways they can look after their well-being as part of their daily lives, we can make sure young people feel prepared and able to recognise potential problems in the future.
Explaining mental health to kids and teens
Use simple terms – talking to kids about mental health can be a good starting point to help them understand their emotions and become more resilient. Starting the conversation around emotions can be a simple starting point for younger children, as it can help them to understand and start naming how they are feeling (emotionally and physically), while introducing them to the connection between their emotional and physical feelings. For example, being tearful may leave them feeling tired; excitement may feel like butterflies in their tummy, or nerves may leave them feeling sick.
Make it part of daily conversations – you don’t need to set aside big, daunting blocks of time to talk about mental health. In the same way you’d talk about eating fruit and vegetables to keep their bodies healthy and strong, share ways kids can be mentally healthy. Things like practising mindfulness to help calm their thoughts, going to bed on time so they don’t feel tired, or cranky the next day, or talking about how everyone has felt each day over dinner can all help normalise mental health as part of your conversations.
Use positive language – how we speak, and the words we use to describe things can have a huge impact on how we (and those around us) view them. Teaching children kinder, more positive language to describe those who are mentally ill or behaving in unexpected ways can be a good first step.
Avoid using negative or offensive terms (such as saying you had a ‘crazy busy day’ or someone was ‘driving like a nutter’), as using this kind of negative language can help foster negative connotations around mental illness. Children may see mental illness as something embarrassing, wrong, to hide, or make fun of if they are frequently exposed to these kinds of attitudes and language choices, which can make them less likely to seek help if they need support in the future.
Make self-care a priority – self-care can encompass a lot of different things for different people, but research has shown that it can have a big impact on our sense of well-being. Encouraging kids to include regular physical activity as part of a healthy self-care routine can benefit both their physical and mental well-being.
Evidence has shown a link between physical activity and good mental well-being. Regular physical activity can help decrease symptoms of mild depression, as well as protect people against feelings of anxiety. Physical activity can positively change our moods, improve our sense of self-esteem and self-control. The NHS guidelines share the minimum amount of physical activity children aged five to 18 should undertake each week.
Introduce mindful moments to daily routines – mindfulness and mindful activities can help children to relax and refocus, whilst listing their mood, decreasing feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as distracting from negative thoughts. Practising mindfulness with children can not only increase their self and social awareness, but can positively impact their confidence.
Simple ways you can introduce mindfulness to children can include:
- Mindful colouring – by focusing on a simple (or complex) pattern they can colour, it can help distract children from negative thought patterns, interrupt their focus on worries on past or future events. It can also give them time to just focus on a simple, repetitive, relaxing activity.
- Mindful play – setting aside time for mindful play can be beneficial for both you and your child. Having dedicated time with the TV switched off, phones and tablets away and on silent, can give you the space to focus your full attention on them and what you are doing together during this time. This can also help encourage children to focus on what they are doing in the moment and fully immerse themselves in creative, imaginative play.
- Mindful cooking – another positive activity you can do together can be introducing mindfulness whilst cooking together. Encourage your child to notice the colours, smells, tastes, and textures of ingredients as you cook, keeping them grounded in the moment and present throughout.
Where is just as important as when – picking the right time (and context) to talk about mental health can be just as important as what you are saying, and how you are saying it. Mental health isn’t just about feeling happy all of the time, and mental health problems are common. Keeping conversations small and informal can help.
Try chatting whilst walking around the park together, over dinner, or while playing a game. Keeping things hypothetical rather than direct can make some children feel more comfortable opening up; try talking about the experiences of a character from one of their favourite shows or books to get things started.
Signposting further support – sometimes, talking to those closest to us can seem like the hardest thing to do. What if they think less of us, or judge us for how we are feeling or what we are thinking? By letting kids know who else they can talk to, where they can turn, and helpful, reliable resources older children and teens can use, it can encourage children to seek out help and support when they are ready.
Just like we would encourage children to go to any adult they trust if they weren’t feeling well or were upset, we should encourage them to talk if something is bothering them or they are concerned about themselves or a friend.