Talking about emotions, feelings and mental health can help a child or young person recognise when they are struggling’ (Picture: Charlotte Cockell for Metro.co.uk)
There’s been a lot of talk and debate this month on the topic of children and mental health. At the beginning of November, the Shaw Mind Foundation successfully reached parliament with their petition for compulsory mental health education in schools. And today, national charity YoungMinds is launching a new campaign called #Take20 to help parents talk to their children about their mental health.
The campaign encourages parents to take 20 minutes a week to talk to their children about how they’re feeling and the pressures they face, while doing something that they both enjoy. It’s about creating a relaxed and supportive space for parents to chat about what can sometimes feel like a difficult topic.
Jo Hardy, head of parent services at YoungMinds, says: ‘Parents often talk to children of all ages about physical health and what the body needs to function well, including enough sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise.
‘Having these conversations about mental health should be no different – talking about feelings and emotions enables children to understand how they are feeling and how they’re behaving to express those feelings.
‘This helps children and young people relate to others and build and maintain happy and healthy relationships. ‘Talking about emotions, feelings and mental health can also help a child or young person recognise when they are struggling and what steps they need to take to start feeling better, like reaching out for help or talking to someone.’ With roughly 1 in 10 children having a diagnosable mental health disorder, it’s good to be prepared.
This wasn’t so much the case for Jane*, 33 from West Yorkshire. Jane has lived with symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression and anxiety since she was young. She says: ‘The PTSD is the worst of the three for me. ‘I get taken back to the moment of trauma in my life and I relive it over and over again. ‘The smells, the feelings, the sounds – it feels like it’s happening all over again.
‘I never spoke to my parents about what was happening, as, for a very long time, I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to be experiencing what was. ‘It was my mum who approached me to talk about what was happening, after I had a blackout one night and, from what my parents told me, I was writing all over my walls in my bedroom.
‘However, they painted over it, put me into bed and got me to sleep before I could see what I had done. ‘The conversation was quite awkward, as I didn’t want to open up and tell them anything as I didn’t want them to worry about me, so I only told them the bare minimum and went to the GP for help.
’ Jane wishes she could have opened up to her family about what she was going through: ‘I think it would have made things a lot easier to deal with if I had opened up. ‘But ifs and buts and maybes are wonderful things, and I guess you have to do what feels right at the time. So how do we broach the subject with our children? When exactly should we be talking about it?
And how do we ensure we are not overwhelming them with jargon or creating a sense of unease? Carrie*, who has experienced episodes of depression throughout her life was worried about any genetic vulnerabilities her son may have. She explains her approach:’I try to give pretty simplistic descriptions.
‘For example, I would say that depression is like when you are sad, but sort of get stuck feeling sad and your brain’s chemicals change. ‘That it means that you don’t feel like doing anything and that you feel bad about yourself. ‘That sometimes tablets can make you feel better and sometimes talking to someone ‘like a doctor’ can help.
‘They understand that some people have very difficult lives and that makes it harder to have a healthy mind’ (Picture: Mmuffin for Metro.co.uk)
Carrie doesn’t arrange a formal, sit-down discussion on the topic. Instead, she uses a far more informal approach and allows it to simply crop up in conversation when appropriate.
She says: ‘Conversations in the car are pretty good. ‘It’s non-threatening, side-by-side seating making it easier somehow to have a ‘casual chat’.
’ Claire from Yorkshire is another parent who regularly chats to her children, the oldest being 11, about mental health. She says: ‘I explain that, just like our bodies get ill, so can our minds. ‘And that it’s sometimes a bit more difficult to sort out because it’s not something the doctor can see like with the symptoms of a virus or a broken bone.
‘We also talk about how to look after our minds by relaxing, talking about it when we’re upset and doing nice things for ourselves.
‘They also understand that some people have very difficult lives and that makes it harder to have a healthy mind.’ Not only can talking about mental health make a big difference to a child or young person who may experience symptoms themselves, it can also help children who witness the impact of mental illness on members of their family.
Dave, from Newcastle upon Tyne, says it made all the difference being open about mental illness in his household. He adds: ‘It wasn’t until a few years ago that I acknowledged my mental health problem, and that in itself was very cathartic for me.
‘However, there were times when I would take to my bed for days and the kids would just be told ‘dad was ill’.
‘It caused problems within the family, ultimately leading to a temporary separation.
‘There were times when I would take to my bed for days’ (Picture: Dave Anderson for Metro.co.uk)
‘All is well now and we’re back together as a family, but it was important for me to explain it properly to the children, so they knew that it was nothing to do with not loving them.
‘The most accurate description I have heard about depression is the lack of ability to feel anything at all. ‘It was so important to me that the kids understood that. ‘And though my ‘bed’ days are less frequent now, they are at ease with it and don’t feel at all threatened by it.
’ Of course, we shouldn’t force the conversation, and the whole point of the campaign is about finding the right time and space to have that chat. Jo says: ‘You know your child better than anyone else.
‘If you know they like to keep their feelings private and won’t respond to direct conversations, don’t put yourself or your child under that pressure. ‘Doing an activity with your child, which gives you both an opportunity to connect, to relax, and to open up a little bit, can be incredibly helpful.
‘In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the activity is as long as it’s something you both like doing – but if you’re stuck for ideas you could try baking, bike riding, take a walk together, exploring somewhere new, designing some Christmas cards together or you could cook an evening meal together.”
But don’t feel upset if you’re not feeling 100 per cent confident simply from reading this brief article.
I have many year’s experience of generalised anxiety disorder and, even though that has equipped me with understanding relating to the illness, it doesn’t make me an expert on other mental illnesses or how to speak to children on the topic.
In fact, the YoungMinds Parents Helpline takes more than 13,000 calls per year from parents and carers who are worried about the mental health of children and young people. So you’re not alone if you feel you need a bit of extra support and guidance.
To find contact details and further information, including ideas, advice and resources for talking to children about mental health, visit youngminds.org.uk/take20
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Lucy NicholThursday 16 Nov 2017 1:11 pm