The 10th October marks World Mental Health Day and as a society, we’re talking about children’s mental health, now more than ever before. Yet, the reality is that it can still feel so difficult to have these conversations with children and young people themselves. As a parent this can be a daunting topic to broach. You might find yourself asking ‘what should I ask?’ ‘What will they say?’ ‘Am I even the right person to be talking to them about this?’ It may be that the topic of mental health is one you don’t understand or have much experience of. You may wish your child would open up to you but don’t know where to begin. However you might feel about it, mental health is something that we all have and we all need to know how to take care of it. Conversations are the beginning of this process.
Here are three things to consider when starting a conversation with your child about mental health:
1. Set a culture of openness
The best environment for conversations about mental health are within a culture where it’s normal to talk about these things. If mental health is something that is regularly and openly talked about within your family, your child will feel a greater freedom to talk about it for themselves. Take some time to reflect on the culture within your family and how mental health is talked about. One of the great ways to start conversations like these is to set an example to your child in how you talk about your own mental health and emotional wellbeing. You can do this by talking about your day; what was good, what was bad. Aspects of your day may have caused you frustration, fear, disappointment or upset. By speaking in a manner natural to you about these things you are signalling that your home and family is a place where these types of conversation are not abnormal.
As a counsellor, I often speak to parents who are nervous to talk about their own difficulties or mental health problems with their child, they feel that in keeping this to themselves they are sheltering them from harm. This can often cause children to feel like their parents don’t understand or haven’t faced difficulty for themselves. Finding a way to talk to your child about your own mental health and how you try to take care of it, will encourage them to know they’re not alone and they can talk about their's too.
2. Open up a dialogue
If there is a culture of openness within your family then more direct conversations about mental health will feel normal rather than forced or uncomfortable. A good way to open up a dialogue with your child is getting in the habit of talking to them about how they’re doing. Ask them how their day has been, what have been the best parts or worst parts. Take an interest in them and the things they enjoy. If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health and have noticed a change in their mood or behaviour, talk to them about this. You might want to say “I’ve noticed that you’ve seemed more upset recently, do you want to talk about it?” or “You’ve been much quieter than usual, is there anything bothering you that you’d like to talk about?”. Find your own way of expressing your concern whilst opening up the opportunity for your child to share if they want to.
The best time to have these conversations is when your child is relaxed, if they have been upset or angry, wait till the next day when they feel calmer, the conversation will be much more productive if their emotions aren’t heightened. Be patient, it might be that they don’t want to talk straight away but by giving the option to talk without any pressure will mean they’ll come to you if and when they’re ready. Ask them if they want to talk about it and if they say no, respect that. It might be that they would feel more comfortable speaking to someone outside of the family. Often young people feel more freedom to share with someone who is slightly removed from their immediate friends or family. If your child finds it difficult to speak about how they feel, encourage them to find their way of communicating. It might be that they would prefer to write it down or draw a picture, anything that helps them to express their feelings and experiences. Mable Counsellor Cara Lorrimer wrote a great blog on this: how to use the arts to support your child's mental health through art.
Listening makes up half of every conversation. Starting a dialogue with your child about mental health also means listening well to their response. Listening to what your child is experiencing and how they’re feeling helps you to try to understand what life is like for them. It also conveys this care and concern to your child. Often we can be quick to try to diagnose the problem our child is facing and look to fix it straight away. Try to fight this natural instinct and take the time to hear what’s really going on. It’s extremely important to help your child look for solutions to their problems but first listen, hear what they are saying and let them know their feelings are ok.
If you don’t feel like you understand, check with them and clarify where you may have misunderstood something. In trying to put yourself in their shoes you’re trying to imagine how they would feel in the situation they’re facing. This will help them to feel listened to and accepted. In taking the time to listen, you will feel better able to help and find the right support for your child.
If your child continues to struggle with their mental health, then you may decide it’s time to speak to a professional. This video is a great way to broach the subject with them:
If you are interested in counselling support for your child, we have lots of counsellors at Mable Therapy who are ready to help. Why not look through our counsellor directory and book a first session where you and your child can find out whether counselling could help.