Today is World Mental Health Day and I was delighted to be invited to BBC Radio to talk about mental health. The BBC wanted to approach to topic with the angle of discussing mental health with children, a topic which I am incredibly passionate about. I feel that to address the mental health epidemic that we are experiencing now, we need to know how to address mental health correctly with our children. Mental distress in adulthood is strongly linked to childhood challenges.
Through our conversation, we talked about my focus on preventive measures being much more helpful than the cure. Most psychotherapists will agree that psychological distress in adulthood is rooted in childhood events. These events, which at the time were not dealt with appropriately for the child, resulted in the child being left with residual emotions and feelings, which have consequently had an impact on their mental health throughout their lives and into adulthood. This is not always a result of poor parenting, this is the result of unrecognised presentations of distress in children. Children do not present with distress in the same way that adults do. They aren’t able to articulate their feelings and generally don’t have the emotional awareness to acknowledge when something is having an adverse impact on them. Instead, despite finding something upsetting or overwhelming, they will find their own ways of coping. This may appear as subtle behavioural changes for younger children, such as demanding more screen time, being more irritable, complaining of physical aches and pains, attempting to express anger and frustration in other ways also. Although this may not be easy to spot in children and may be justified as children just being children, the impact of this will be seen later in life as a symptom of poor mental health. By this point, the child may require mental health intervention to help them cope with the intensity of these feelings.
These problems can be easily dealt with, children are able to cope with the challenges of life when given an appropriate and containing space to process their emotions.
Here are my top tips for managing mental health with children:
Talk openly about emotions and feelings. This creates an environment where the child is able to feel safe enough to talk about how they feel. When they do this, just listening to them and receiving that information by acknowledging what they are saying in a non-judgemental way can be enough to alleviate their distress. Children are able to move on from emotional distress easier than adults when given the right space to do so
There are limits to what children can tolerate. If we overshare information with children that isn’t age appropriate it can result in distressing the child. They don’t have the emotional maturity to assimilate complex emotional information so it’s important to deliver sensitive information in an age appropriate and consideration way.
When children correctly judge a situation in the household, such as parents being unhappy for example, don’t discredit their judgement. Children have a strong ability to read the emotional cues in the environment around them and parents may attempt to pretend that everything is ok in an attempt to protect their child. However, what this does is teaches the child that their judgement is incorrect which can be incredibly confusing for a child. If your child correctly recognises something in the environment, validate their judgement. This teaches them the important tool of judgement and gives them a guide for their perception of events. Learning when their judgement is correct and when it isn’t is an invaluable skill which will help them to navigate the challenges of life.
Help your child to feel and tolerate painful emotions. It is part of the normal human experience to feel a range of emotions, sometimes we are meant to feel sad and upset, sometimes we’re meant to feel happy and positive. When we are unable to tolerate painful emotions, we seek out maladaptive coping strategies to prevent us from feelings these emotions, furthermore this inability to tolerate emotional pain contributes to poor mental health. Teaching children at a young age, how to cope with these difficult emotions helps to develop valuable traits of tolerance and resilience which are essential for managing the challenges of adult life.
Help your child to recognise their own coping strategies and boundaries. What feels comfortable for them and what doesn’t? What can they do to make themselves feel better when they are having a bad day? Learning these at a young age can help them to develop self awareness which is essential for stable mental health in adulthood.