For those of you who aren’t aware, this week is Children’s Mental Health Week. To mark the occasion, I thought it would be the perfect time to explore the importance of discussing mental health with children and young adults, and spreading awareness for the type of help available to them in times of crisis.
Children’s Mental Health Week was originally launched in 2015 by Place2Be, an organisation I highly recommend checking out. They have specialised in educating children and providing services in order to help them with any mental health difficulties they are facing. Place2Be also provides training for those who would like to become counsellors, specialising in how to help young people.
This year’s theme for Mental Health week is ‘Express Yourself’, which is about ‘finding ways to share feelings, thoughts, or ideas, through creativity.’ Simply put, this year the theme is setting out to encourage expression and exploration of mental health through art and other activities. Later in this post I will discuss some potential ideas for expressing yourself and also explore how to get your children involved. However, before this, I would like to take some time to explore the importance of mental health during a person’s formative years, and also some ways you could start being an advocate.
What’s so Important about Childhood’s Connection with Mental Health?
This may sound like a pretty easy question to answer, but there are also many of us who underestimate just how much of an impact our formative years have on us. Positive and negative upbringings and events during these childhood years help shape us into the person we are today, and can contribute to many of our thought patterns and social habits.
The thing is, for children not many of them are even aware of mental health in the first place. I for one definitely wasn’t aware of the concept when I was growing up, and was only really beginning to learn about this when I was in my teenage years. I also know that this lack of knowledge ended up being an extreme disadvantage to me and could have helped with a lot of the trauma I experienced.
The stigma that still exists around the area of mental health and wellbeing isn’t just something that is experienced by us grown-ups, but something that is passed on to the next generation as well. How many young boys have been told by their parent’s to ‘stop acting like a girl’ when they cry or get upset, only to then associate shame and embarrassment with crying for the rest of their formative years?
Even though it’s Children’s Mental Health Week, adults play such a big role regarding this awareness and expression. Kids learn from their parents constantly, and to many children a parent’s way to do something is the only way they will experience. This can lead to us passing on insecurities, prejudices and bad habits unintentionally to our own children or those we are in close contact with. However, this isn’t all bad, as we can also teach positive traits and habits. This brings us to our next question:
How Can We Be Advocates of Mental Health to Young People?
There are so, so many ways that we can pass on these healthy lessons to children and young people around us. That being said, there are two very important things we must do in order for this to be a successful process: Talk honestly, and use language children understand.
Depending on the age of your own children or those around you, be it through your job or friends/family, you’ll need to explain concepts like mental health in a way that is understandable as this can be a lot to take in for a young child. Instead of saying ‘big boys don’t cry’ maybe explain that it’s okay to cry a little if something upsets you.
Similarly, describing something like depression to a child isn’t an easy task, but approaching it honestly and in a way they can comprehend will help the process a lot. Depending on the particular child, maybe explain to them that it’s okay to be sad sometimes about smaller things, but when they are sad most of the time it might mean something is bothering them and they should tell you what it is.
This brings us to the next point, be sure to ask questions. I know that I struggled to open up about my problems or worries at first, and a lot of this fear came from me having to open up first. I always wished someone would ask how I felt or if I were okay, because then it would feel fine for me to open up. Asking questions like this can make those in need feel like the helper is genuinely interested and allow them to feel more comfortable letting people in. It also allows us helpers to understand what’s going on. The more information we have the better we can help.
One thing I think is important in helping children with their mental health or making them aware of the concept is to not immediately try to fix their problems when you figure out what they are. It can feel nice when someone does something for us, then suddenly they aren’t there the next time we have to do it and we start panicking. The same applies for mental health. Teach your children how to cope with their issues rather than attempting to solve them. This will make them not only feel supported, but also strong and capable.
On the flip side of the last point, if a child comes to you with a worry or sadness then, regardless of how small it may seem to us with our own problems, don’t diminish or make them feel like this isn’t a big deal. There are many things I found stressful as a kid that I no longer consider worrying, but at the time those fears, and concerns were just as real as any I feel nowadays. Just be sure to acknowledge their problem and help them as much as you can.
Anyone who is worried about the mental health of their children should take note of the warning signs and address things if they notice any worrying behaviour. These warning signs could be anything from being less active, spending less time with friends, to the more extreme side of the spectrum with the likes of self-harm and addiction. Even if your child seems to be just ‘acting out’, don’t hesitate to speak with them or bring them to their doctor/a specialist. If it’s nothing serious then it may be mildly annoying for you, but far less than if their was a problem and you chose to ignore it.
One final note on being a mental health advocate to children and young people is to make them aware that they don’t have to speak to you if they aren’t comfortable. Being an advocate can be as simple as encouraging your children to speak up and tell those they trust how they are feeling. It may not feel like you’re helping them as much, but that isn’t what is important. The important thing is creating an encouraging environment where children feel comfortable talking to someone about their mental health, be it a friend, teacher or trained professional.
Tips for how children can ‘Express Themselves’:
Before finishing up this post, I wanted to write a little about this year’s theme for Children’s Mental Health Week. So below are some of my tips for how you and your children can express themselves this year:
One of the fundamental activities associated with creativity and expression is art. Though this doesn’t mean you and your kids need to be the next Picasso or Michelangelo. Gather some pages and a few pencils, pens and colours, and then sketch somethings for fun.
To link back to mental health awareness, you could draw based on prompts drawn out of a hat, such as ‘draw how you feel’ or ‘draw something that makes you happy/sad/excited’. This way you’re not only getting to get creative, but also it acts a conversation starter around the topic of emotions and how you’re feeling.
- Dressing up
This one is actually highlighted on the Place2Be website for Children’s Mental Health Week 2021, but is worth mentioning regardless. Our clothes are one of the most common ways each of us express ourselves. Be it those who value comfortable or those who value stylish, each of our outfits say something about us and can also convey how we’re feeling. Perhaps buying a new outfit you usually wouldn’t wear or dressing up in something silly with your kids could be the perfect conversation starter about discomfort and how it’s okay to discuss.
- Baking & Cooking
One activity I personally like expressing myself through is my baking/cooking. I may be a little obsessed with The Great British Bake Off and even though my bakes never look quite as tasty, there is something satisfying about creating something conceptually then actually carrying out your plan. Not only is this fun but you also get a (hopefully) tasty dessert out of it that you can enjoy and share with those closest to you. It’s a win-win situation. Get the kids involved and bake something easy and talk in the process about how you’re feeling. Depending on how much you enjoy it you could even arrange a small bake sale and donate the earnings to a mental health charity.
- Embrace and encourage creativity even if your kids don’t feel creative.
Whilst there are countless other ways you and your children can express themselves, I think an important note to finish up on is to embrace and encourage whomever you’re doing these activities with. Not all of us feel uber creative and perfectly ready to express ourselves through art at the snap of a finger, and that is okay. Address the concerns and take solace in the fact that if nothing else, it will be equally fun and ridiculous for all of those taking part. All of us are creative in our own way and it’s important to figure out what works for us in order to get the best out of the process. In the words of Maya Angelou “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more about children’s mental health, be sure to check out Place2Be or YoungMinds. Be sure to follow my blog for more mental health awareness and training posts. Let me know below if there is anything I forgot to mention or any other tips you think are worth noting! Did you celebrate Children’s Mental Health Week, if so, how?
If you’re experiencing any of the feelings described in this post, or know somebody who is, then there are many things you can do to help. Talking to somebody about how you or they are feeling can be very beneficial. If you’re not sure what to do but need urgent help, there are many emergency hotlines that provide support and encouragement such as Mind.org and Samaritans.org. You’re not alone in feeling this way, others are there to help.