It can feel difficult to start the conversation with your children about mental health. This may be because you don’t feel equipped with information you think you may need, or lack the confidence about how you even open up conversation. Adults can also be concerned that they may not have the answers to children’s questions or that they might say something ‘wrong’.
But the good news is that you are used to working with children and are able to use language that they can understand. There are also number of excellent resources available to help.
Mental illness to child can be bit challenging. Young children don’t understand the depression or anxiety as adults do and it can be difficult to find words to explain it to them. As result, many parents opt not to bring u issue reasoning that it’s better not to confuse or stress the kids.
What many parents don’t realize is that kids are actually very observant and they will notice if anything is out of the ordinary. So if you, your spouse or anyone in your family is struggling with mental illness, your children are bound to have noticed. They may be confused and even frightened by the changes in the person’s behavior, especially if that adult holds an important place in their lives.
One of most important things you can do to support your children in this instance is to help them understand the mental illness. Taking time to address their questions and concerns will help them understand the illness. This will make it less frightening and mysterious, and give them the tools they need to cope.
Having an open, honest discussion will help your child trust you and will clear up some of the misconceptions they might have about the situation. It will also help to decrease the anxiety that comes from uncertainty. Being informed also lessens the anger, confusion and surprise they might feel if they are left to discover the illness on their own, or if someone else confronts them with negative comments about their ill parent.
Ideas to get the conversation going.
Starting conversation on the mental health early can give your children better idea of what the mental illness is all about. It is a powerful way to reduce stigma surrounding it.
Why talk to children about mental health?
We can help them to recognise that we all respond to experiences with our emotions, feelings, thoughts and behaviours.
It’s important too that children understand how there can be changes in their bodies which are connected to their feelings and thoughts – for example, just as in PE, when our heart beats very quickly after we have been running, the same is true when we are nervous or scared.
By helping children with these concepts and getting them to think about how feelings and thoughts are linked to behavior, we can then explain how a combination of all these elements affects our mental health.
Calmly and very confidently opening up the conversations in our classrooms, dining rooms and the playgrounds can encourage children to discuss, to learn and realize that the mental health is something we all have and that we should be aware of it and learn the skills to look after it. That there might be days when we feel sad or we struggle and other days when we feel confident and calm. Importantly, we can have a conversation about asking for help when we need support.
See our page on depression to help distinguish between a child feeling a bit down and a more serious underlying problem.
What schools can do about mental health
Conversations about the mental health will be more effective in context of positive whole-school environment, where:
There is an ethos of constructive, caring relationships across the school built on trust, kindness, safety and security.
There is a sense of belonging and children are encouraged to talk to staff about worries and difficulties.
Children have been taught good social and emotional skills and are able to identify feelings, thoughts and emotions. A number of whole-school, targeted and PSHE lessons are available to help children develop these skills. See, for example, PSHE lesson plans such as Northern Ireland personal development and mutual understanding modules
Circle time is used to routinely share feelings, thoughts and emotions.
All staff are encouraged and supported to be alert, watchful and curious about children’s behavior, their body language, their interaction with other pupils, what they say, what they draw and what they do in school.
There is strong foundation of the good staff mental health and wellbeing.
Not all the staff will feel comfortable about the opening up conversations on child wellbeing. It is important that school staff have good quality training and ongoing support from the senior leadership team to help with confidence in this area.
Starting a conversation
Ideally conversations will be opened up by a classroom teacher, a well-liked and sensitive teaching assistant or a playground staff member who is well-known to a child/children (rather than a supply teacher).
Every school should make sure that anyone working or interacting with children understands safeguarding procedures and has the necessary training.
Talking about mental health in class/group
Make the conversations about the mental health normal part of class discussion so that the children feel increasingly comfortable about topic. Focus your attention; make the eye contact with the children; really connect.
Ask open questions to encourage children to think and give their opinions.
Encourage respect for different views.
Demonstrate empathy so that if children start to feel safe enough to talk about any struggles they may have, you are showing them how to respond.
While you are having discussions, you have a perfect opportunity to increase their emotional vocabularies to help them explain how they are feeling.
Keep an eye out for any children who might show signs that they are struggling with their mental health and talk to your designated safeguarding lead (DSL) if you are worried.
Talking about mental health with a child
Find an appropriate time and relaxed place to have a conversation with a child you might be concerned about.
If a child discloses in class, offer empathy, invite them to talk in a safer, more private setting and talk to your designated safeguarding lead (DSL) for advice about how the situation should be managed.
If you invite a young person to tell you their personal issues, be clear what you will do with this information. Consider how you will respond if asked ‘not to tell anyone’.
The staff member that is involved should be familiar to child whenever possible.
Sit on the low chair if you can so there is less the height difference and you will be more approachable.
Simply explain why you are there. For example, ‘you said something interesting in circle time about how you felt when…
How do you feel about it now
Check with the child if there are other trusted adults (parents, the wider family, teachers) or friends they have talked to or could talk to.
Listen carefully, be very patient and friendly and give your full attention.
Check your body language so that the child knows you are focusing on them.
Take what they’re saying seriously. Don’t over-react but don’t try to minimise or dismiss what they are saying. Ask open questions to encourage them to talk.
Be calm and acknowledge their feelings.
For the young children drawing, modelling or playing with the toys while conversation is progressing can be helpful.
Offer empathy and understanding rather than solutions. When a child receives empathy they begin to develop trust.
Remember we are all different and children will respond in their own unique way to their experiences.
Remember that children with SEND (special educational needs & disability) may struggle even more to articulate their feelings and thoughts and may need extra support. See this factsheet from I CAN which outlines techniques to help children with speech, language and communication needs and includes useful general guidance.(source)
Start with yourself
Before talking to your child, try to get as much information as you can about the illness your important person is struggling with. The more you know, the more confident you’ll feel and the better placed you’ll be to answer your child’s questions.
It’s also important to be mindful of your own attitudes towards mental illness, and how this might filter through to your child. If you feel that mental illness is shameful or someone’s fault, your child will pick up on this regardless of what else you tell them. This will only add to any of the confusion, the fear or anxiety they have about what they see happening to the loved person.
Pick an opportune time to talk.
In order to improve communication with your child and get them to open up to you, you need to be flexible about where and when this conversation takes place. Some kids feel more comfortable talking and asking questions when playing or doing something else while others prefer a face-to-face sit-down talk.
A news story, the series or movie where character has mental health challenges can be perfect conversation starter to delve deeper into issue. You can ask the questions, find out how your kid feels and let conversation flow from there.
Make the conversation age-appropriate
When talking with child about mental illness, it’s important to tailor conversation to their age and developmental stage. To enhance their understanding, use language, explanations, and examples that they can relate to.
For instance, you might say this to a 5-year old, “Remember when you had that sore throat and you were all angry and grumpy with us? You were like that because you were unwell. Well, mommy isn’t feeling well right now, that’s why she’s acting grouchy and crying a lot. She still loves us, but she just can’t show it right now.”
Kids usually have their own way of their interpretation of what’s happening so it’s good idea to ask how they explain the parent’s behavior, listen to them empathetically then build on what they say while correcting any of the misconceptions they have in their minds.
Allay your child’s fears.
Children who live with their ill parents often experience the anger and even the guilt. They may feel that life is unfair to them, then feel guilty for having those emotions. Some may even feel somehow responsible for their parent’s illness.
Dealing with such feelings is crucial in order to help them live happier lives. They need to understand that their mommy’s or daddy’s illness isn’t caused by anyone’s actions. Sometimes life just happens that way and it wasn’t because they were bad kids. Emphasize that it’s normal and ok to feel sad, angry, embarrassed or frustrated and encourage them to find healthy ways to express those feelings.
Remember your kids will take their cue from you so the more you share your feelings, the more comfortable they’ll be talking about theirs.
Help them come up with coping strategies.
Keeping your routine consistent, especially when living with someone with a mental illness, will help your children feel safe. Older children will feel better and more confident if they have a plan of action in case something happens. So make sure your children have a list of people to call or know where to go to get help if need be. You can also help them identify a trusted adult they can confide in whenever they want to talk.
Additionally, take time to help them come up with appropriate responses should other kids or adults ask them about their loved one’s illness. Children can be especially cruel to each other so it’s better to prepare your child for teasing from other kids. Practicing how to explain the illness and what they can say will be of great help.
Finally, if you’re living with someone struggling with mental challenges, ask for help. You can join a support group, ask the child’s grandparents or other relatives to talk to your child or even get pointers from a mental health specialist.
While you might not get the words exactly right the first time, having an ongoing conversation about mental illness with your child will help them cope better and live a more positive life. (source)
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