It’s really important to normalise conversations about mental health with our children and delegates on our Youth MHFA courses often ask:
“How do I talk to young people about their mental health?”
“What language can I use and how can I get them to open up in the first place?”
These are really good questions and there is no one simple answer but here are a few things to keep in mind.
Time the conversation
Nobody likes to see their child upset and it’s natural to want to dive in and try to fix it. But sitting down with them and directly asking them about their feelings may cause further distress. Children don’t always understand what’s happening to them and they may not have the language to describe their feelings, making it difficult for them to open up.
One thing you can try is doing a fun activity with them and then start to talk about their feelings. This may be colouring or lego with younger children, and maybe a physical activity such as a kick about or cooking a meal with older kids. This takes the pressure off and can help start the conversation.
Use appropriate language
Always use kind and respectful language. Don’t let your own stress colour the conversation. Think about what you’re saying and how you would feel if another adult said that to you.
Younger children probably won’t know what anxiety is though they may describe it as a tummy ache or my back hurts. Use very simple sentences and age appropriate language. You could say “ok, so on a scale of 1-10, ten is when you’re really, really happy and 1 is when you’re really, really sad, where are you now?” Then you can maybe find out what are the things making them sad and what can we do to make them happier.
Not all children like to talk, but the conversation doesn’t have to be verbal. You could try writing notes, email or text.
And if they really don’t want to talk to you, help them find someone else they can talk to.
Encourage peer support
Self-esteem is really important for good mental health so involving them and empowering them in any decisions about their wellbeing is a great thing to do. In adolescence, young people become more withdrawn from their parents. It’s just part of growing up. Kids need to make their own decisions and their peers become the most important people.
Encouraging peer support therefore can be really useful. People of their own age who may be experiencing similar things will be able to communicate using their own language. Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ you were when you were younger you’re a dinosaur to a teenager.
Abbie Mitchell, peer mentoring manager at Fitzrovia Youth In Action says, “This program really brings conversations about mental health and looking out for each other to life for young people. When discussions are had between youth of a similar age, using their language, vocabulary and creativity, there is something really special about the peer support that can take place. Young people listening to each other, relating to one another and offering empathy in a designated safe and supportive space can really make a difference to how they talk about mental health, normalising conversations about it and also supporting them to feel able to reach out and get professional help if needed.”
Fitzrovia Youth In Action run peer mentoring, education and support programs which help normalise talking about poor mental health and empower young people to be able to take action, helping others and helping themselves.
Kooth is a fantastic online counselling and self-help app which young people find a really useful source of support.
Being a parent is a wonderful thing but also a stressful experience in itself, the NSPCC are there to support parents as well as children.
Young Minds parent helpline is specifically to help parents and is a fantastic resource too.
Learn more about supporting children’s mental health.