Ask any parent and they’ll tell you that their greatest wish is for their child to be healthy and happy. That’s why they nag their kids to brush their teeth, race to piano lessons and football practice every week, and are ready with plasters in hand when their little ones have a fall.
As parents, we teach children how to be physically fit and healthy. But, sadly, mental health is often skimmed over, if not altogether forgotten.
But, now more than ever, it’s not something to be ignored. Because looking after our mental health isn’t a nice add-on or a fun extracurricular, it’s a fundamental skill that you need to know whether you’re an adult or a kid.
Just imagine if your child grew up knowing how to express and manage their emotions. What if they felt like they could come to you if they were struggling, or had a toolkit of tips and techniques to help them cope when things got tough? It would set them up for life.
The world is a scary and nerve-wracking place and, at some point, your kids won’t be so little. They’ll be off fending for themselves, living their own lives. And the sad truth is, we can’t protect our kids from everything. They’ll face their own obstacles in life and it can seem like there’s nothing we can do to shield them from that hurt.
But there is one thing we can offer: we can equip them with the skills they need to look after their mental health. And that gift is truly priceless.
Because these skills won’t just help them in the future. They’re vital right now. In 2018, the NHS reported that nearly 400,000 people under 18 are being treated each year for mental health issues — the highest number ever.
So, with this in mind, and in honour of Children’s Mental Health Week, we’ve compiled a few tips to help you teach your kids how to look after their mental and emotional wellbeing.
It’ll help them get in tune with how they’re feeling and show that you’re someone to count on when things get tough.
And who knows, maybe you’ll even get a little extra headspace for yourself.
What is mental health?
Before you teach your kids how to look after their mental health you must have got the fundamentals straight. So, first things first, what exactly is, mental health?
In many ways, mental health is just the same as physical health. However, instead of looking after our muscles and joints, we’re caring for our minds, our emotions and our thoughts.
Many people have a tendency to gloss over their mental health but we all have it, and it’s just as important as our physical health. In fact, the two are deeply connected. Poor mental health can lead to mental health problems and, on the flip side, poor mental health can take its toll on our physical health, leading to an increased risk of some conditions.
So what exactly does someone with good mental health look like? Are they always happy?
Not necessarily. Mental health is a spectrum and so someone with good mental health won’t always be on cloud nine. They’re just able to manage the ups and downs life brings. Instead of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with negative thoughts or emotions, they can recognise them, accept them and work through them.
From happiness and sadness to stress and anger, we deal with a wide range of emotions every day — and that’s completely natural. More often than not these emotions come and go. It’s whenever negative feelings linger that we should be concerned. That’s because it could be a sign of more serious mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
Tips to teach kids about mental health
Now you’ve got a grasp of what mental health is, you should find it much easier to explain it to your little ones. But if you still need a helping hand, here are a few practical tips to help you teach your children how to look after their mental health.
Model good habits
It can be daunting realising that you’re such a powerful role model for your child. But just as kids can mimic our bad behaviours, they can pick up good habits too. So what if we used this to our advantage? If you express your emotions calmly and confidently, and take steps to look after your mental wellbeing, chances are your kids may copy your behaviour.
Remember, our own issues and patterns can be passed down from generation to generation.
So if you have any difficulties or past experiences you haven’t yet worked through, the best gift you could ever give your child is to go to therapy yourself. That way, you can lead by example and show them how important it is to prioritise their own mental and emotional wellbeing.
Just like adults, kids have lots of complicated feelings to deal with. They may feel frustrated, angry, sad or joyful. But they might not have the vocabulary to put it into words.
To act out these feelings, you might find that your child tends to throw toys or have a temper tantrum. It’s problematic behaviour, and that’s why it’s so important to help teach children how to identify and name their feelings.
Next time this happens, don’t lose your cool. Instead, calmly explain the emotion they’re feeling and the behaviour associated with it. For instance, perhaps they’re crying because they’re sad to say goodbye to a friend, or maybe they’re shouting because they’re angry that they have to share their toys.
By helping them identify and name their emotions it’ll help your kids make sense of their feelings. And, better yet, it’ll help you both recognise the difference between rational emotions and more serious mental health conditions.
A good night’s sleep can do wonders for our mental wellbeing — and that’s especially true when it comes to kids.
You probably already know when your little one is tired because they’re more irritable and cranky. That’s why you should teach your kid how to unwind their mind and get ready for bed.
Encourage them to go to sleep at the same time each night, even on weekends and the holidays. Or why not ask them to turn off their devices an hour before bed so they can properly relax?
Teach them about body image and self-esteem
When you look at yourself in the mirror what do you see? Does it bring you joy or do you tend to nitpick at all the little quirks that make you uniquely you?
Body image is all about how we think and feel about our bodies physically, and how we believe others perceive us. At times you may love your body, but other times that niggling voice in your head might put you in a negative tailspin.
Sadly, kids are no different. Research suggests that children as young as five year’s old may start to show dissatisfaction about how they look, according to the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY). Meanwhile, the YMCA’s ‘Be Real’ campaign found that an alarming two thirds (67%) of young people regularly worry about their appearance.
They might be worried about their weight or acne, for instance. Or maybe they’re suffering from body dysmorphia, feel misunderstood because of a physical disability, or simply have a skewed sense of body image because of social media.
It’s completely natural to feel insecure about your body from time to time. But, if left unchecked, body image struggles could lead to serious issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and low self-esteem.
So what can you do to help? If your child is struggling with their body image, encourage them to say some positive affirmations in the mirror. Or why not help them jot down the positive aspects of their body that they like. Even if it’s just one thing, it could make a big difference.
It’s also important to reinforce the idea that there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect body’. Despite what we see in the glossy magazines, people come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. So encourage your little one to show some self-compassion. Sometimes they might like how they look, other times they might not — and that’s okay.
Remind them that their worth isn’t defined by their appearance. It’s just one of the many facets that make them unique. Instead, it might be helpful to frame bodies in a different light. For example, you could tell your child that their body is wonderful because of what it can do, not because of how it looks (e.g. because of how fast they can run or how strong they are).
Regular exercise, such as team sports or dance, can really help with this. Not only does it help your kids connect with their bodies, but it also shows them all the amazing things they’re capable of.
Let’s say your child is feeling a bit down in the dumps, stressed or angry. Their first instinct might be to scream and shout, shed a few tears or even withdraw into themselves. It can be distressing to see as a parent. So what can you do to help?
Thankfully, there are plenty of coping skills you can teach them to help manage their emotions. For instance, you could show them to journal, or encourage them to express their feelings creatively through painting. This would provide a safe environment where they can sift through their emotions and make sense of how they’re feeling.
Alternatively, if they’re in a tizzy, why not give meditation or a breathing exercise a go? Take the flower breathing exercise, for instance.
To do this, simply ask your child to imagine a beautiful flower such as a rose or a daisy. Then tell them to breathe in deeply through their nose, as if they’re taking a big whiff of the flower’s scent. Ask them to hold their breath for three seconds and then slowly exhale for four seconds. Repeat this five times to help promote a sense of peace.
For more helpful techniques, check out Self-care, our audio and video therapy library.
Make mental health a daily conversation
No one can offer a shoulder to cry on quite like our parents. They’re there for us through thick and thin, and offer a listening ear when we need to vent about our problems.
But sometimes, amid the hectic buzz of day-to-day life, it can be easy to forget to check in with your kids emotionally.
So, take care to chat with your children about how they’re feeling and stay alert for any cues that might indicate that they’re not doing okay. If you’re feeling nervous about starting the conversation, that’s okay. Why not try doing an activity side-by-side together like cooking or painting? It’s a great way to spend quality time together and chat about whatever’s on your child’s mind. Plus, it might be less daunting for them than having a face-to-face conversation.
Even if they’re alright, creating a space where they feel safe to talk about their mental health lays the groundwork should any issues arise in the future.
Because it’s not just adults who need to talk about their mental health. Maybe your child is being bullied, struggling with school stress or are dealing with the symptoms of a mental illness. Let them know that they can come to you with any problem, even if it feels awful or small.
Remind them they’re not alone
Most importantly, let them know that struggling sometimes is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. One in four of us will experience mental health problems in our lifetimes. And there’s a spectrum of different mental health conditions out there, not just anxiety and depression.
Even if they’re in a positive headspace, informing them of other people’s struggles will nurture empathy and remove the stigma surrounding mental health problems. And, as a parent, what could be more rewarding than teaching your kid how to be a more understanding, sympathetic and informed person.