Ask any parent what they want most for their child and they'll probably say 'to be happy.' With three children in every primary class now suffering with mental health, from anxiety and low-confidence to bullying and bereavement, lots of us are are looking for answers. How do I help my child express his emotions? How can I help her deal with failure?
In the chaos of family life, remembering to take care of our emotional wellbeing often goes to the bottom of the priority list. For most children, it's probably not even on their radar because they're not yet aware of how important their mental health is.
More than half (56%) of children and young people say they worry “all the time” about at least one thing to do with their school life, home life or themselves – and those children getting less sleep are less able to cope with worries, saying they often don’t know what to do when they’re worried (22% vs 18%), and once they start worrying, they cannot stop (36% vs 28%).
1 in 8 children and young people have a diagnosable mental health problem, and many continue to have these problems into adulthood. There has never been a better time to take preventative steps with our children's mental health.
Good self-care habits are just as important for kids as they are for adults. I asked some women in the know for their advice.
Kemi, a coach and adolescent therapist, writes that 'it's never too early to start teaching children about self-care. With much younger children, it can be as simple as teaching them to look after their things and themselves. Physically looking after yourself (washing hands) and looking after the space you occupy (tidying up toys) is self-care. You can explain this in this way. Looking after our body/room can make our mind happy.'
She adds, 'with older children, you need to be that role model. Show them you are taking that time to look after yourself and say why you are doing it.'
'Another way to introduce children to self-care is get them to practice daily affirmations, reinforce those affirmations by giving them specific praise and compliments. Finally, encourage them to be in touch with their feelings and express their emotions.'
Suzanne, award-winning author of She's Not Good For a Girl, She's Just Good! recommends reading. 'When I'm feeling a bit off colour or low about something, one of the first things I do is read up on it. A self-help book, a blog post, an article: knowledge gives me the comfort that I can overcome anything. I want my daughter to feel that reading can help her in the same way; whether it's reading for pleasure or learning about something that will help how she feels. Sitting with Thea as she learns to read has been so wonderful. Whether it's for fun or knowing that if there's ever a tricky subject to discuss, someone will have written a book about it for children; not just that I can read to her, but that Thea has the ability and power to read it for herself, and help herself...what a gift!'
Francesca, creator of the HappySelf Journal, adds that ‘as our children grow up in an increasingly busy world we need to teach them how to take time out, to reflect and just ‘be’ with their thoughts. A gratitude journal is a very simple but proven way to boost our happiness levels and I have seen the impact of this on my own children. From greater self-awareness, sleeping better and feeling that they have a safe space from which to share worries with us it has transformed bedtime, especially with my youngest. I also encourage my children to practice meditation and affirmations. If we can instil positive habits like these at a young age our children will be so much better equipped to deal with life’s ups and downs.’
The HappySelf Journal
Natalie, coach and author, recommends getting your child to 'really pay attention to that little voice inside their head. Often when I work with children, many of them will say things to me like "I think I'm rubbish" or "I'm not good at this." Recently an eight-year-old boy said to me "I'm a failure." When they think thoughts like this, these thoughts don't make them feel good, they make them feel disempowered, self-doubt, worry and overwhelmed. So helping our children start to recognise these thoughts is step one.'
Natalie suggests 'a way to go about this is to help children personify their thoughts. We create a character for this voice; we give it a silly name, a colour, maybe even a silly voice. We want children to become aware of this voice and recognise that this isn't me, it's just a thought that I'm having. Then ask them what they would tell their best friend if they were having this thought.
So if their best friend came to them and said they were rubbish at maths, what would your child tell them? Would they agree? Absolutely not. They might say "come on, of course you can do this." Your child will start to become aware of the negative self-talk and challenge it. This is such a useful skill to teach children from a young age to begin to notice their mental chatter. Remind your child that when they have those unhelpful thoughts, ask themselves, what would I tell my friend instead? Ultimately, your child needs to learn how to become their own best friend.'
Supporting your child with their mental health is a tricky path to navigate depending on your child's awareness and struggles. Above all, talk. Talk to your child about how they're feeling and tell them how you're feeling too. Talk to your friends, ask for advice, reach out if you need help and remember you and your child are not alone.
Thank you to the women who contributed. Research is from Place2Be. Last week we launched The Self-Care Box for Children to help parents open up the conversation about mental health with their child. If you are concerned about your child and would like support, please visit Young Minds, NHS... Photo taken from Unsplash.