Children's mental health is something that mother-of-two, author and influencer, Cat Sims is passionate about. Here she talks modelling behaviours to help children to manage mental health.
Watching your child struggle with mental health issues, from anxiety and low-self esteem to can be worrying for parents. But, being open and honest about mental health and how to manage it is essential. But as the stigma around mental health fades, more parents are talking about mental health with their children. It’s also important to show our children how to manage their mental health by modelling it. Stop feeling guilty about taking time out for your mental health and use it as a teaching moment. Showing children our strategies for managing our mental health could be the best gift we give them.
Clinical psychologist and author of A Toolkit for Happiness, Dr. Emma Hepburn (opens in new tab) agrees; “Talk about and normalise how [your kids] are feeling, it’s normal to feel anxious at times, everyone does, even their favourite star!"
Children’s mental health – what does it mean?
Mental health in childhood looks like reaching emotional milestones, learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children also have a positive quality of life and can function well in society. This doesn't mean they're 'happy', it means they hold space for their feelings and can process and understand them.
Throughout the pandemic our children have been away from friends and family. They’ve had to instantly adjust to ever-changing situations. It’s taken a toll so making a conscious effort to check in with our kids is crucial.
Children take their lead from us, they trust us to guide them emotionally through their younger years. They watch us and copy us. Often, our children’s mental health reflects our own so when it comes to managing it, they’ll look to us for guidance.
That’s why it’s important to reframe those activities we, as parents, often feel guilty about. Instead of sneaking off to have a nap, or go for a walk, be clear about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
When should I worry about my child’s mental health?
Clinical psychologist and author of A Toolkit for Happiness, Dr. Emma Hepburn (opens in new tab)suggests we should always be mindful of changes in our children such as, withdrawing, refusing to leave you or physical changes such as trouble sleeping or frequent tummy ache.
“Sometimes it can be hard to put a finger on exactly what’s changed,” Hepburn explains. “But you are aware that your child is acting differently in some way.” Figuring out a way to help them verbalise it or show us the issue, is key.
Signs your child is struggling
According to the NHS (opens in new tab) around 1 in 8 children and young people experience behavioural or emotional problems growing up. It can be difficult to know for sure if there is something upsetting them but you know your child better than anyone else, so trust your instinct. Also be aware of external factors, such a starting a new school a change to family dynamic - such as divorce or new sibling. Here are some signs to look out for;
- significant changes in behaviour
- ongoing difficulty sleeping
- withdrawing from social situations
- not wanting to do things they usually like
- self-harm or neglecting themselves
What can we do to support our children when it comes to mental health?
Communication is key. In older children you could speak this through with them. Younger children may not always have the words to describe what’s going on.
Hepburn suggests getting more creative in those cases. “Be curious with your child. Enable them to speak about their feelings and try to understand what’s going on for them. Drawings can be a really helpful tool. Often with children I draw a brain and ask them to fill in sections with what’s bothering their brain. Also, spending time with children, building connection, helps them feel safe.
“There can be benefits of speaking about anxiety and mental health, in an age appropriate way, to help them understand what’s happening and form a coherent story about it. It can also help to ensure they don’t feel like it’s their fault, or that they are responsible for fixing things. Conversations like this can encourage them to open up about their own feelings.”
It can be scary for children when they struggle with anxious feelings for the first time. Helping them realise they are not alone can be really helpful. “Normalise how they are feeling, it’s normal to feel anxious at times, everyone does even the queen and their favourite pop star!” says Hepburn.
What strategies are there for managing mental health that I can share with my children
Often the things we do to maintain our own mental health are the things we feel guilty about such as taking time out, exercising, napping! Modelling those strategies will not just help your children but, will also help you re-frame your perception of these activities from ‘selfish’ to ‘essential’ and your children will learn that too.
- Walking: kids notoriously resist walking but explaining that it can help them feel a bit clearer and calmer in their brain may help. Plus, it’s a great opportunity for one-on-one time with your child.
- Journaling: Journaling is a great way to help them really consider their feelings. It’s better to use a structured journal that guides them through the process. The Positive Doodle Diary* by The Positive Planners* is wonderful.
- Breathing: Many kids don’t understand the concept of deep breathing as a calming strategy. Teaching them the skill of learning to breath in deeply through their nose and out through their mouth can really help them.
- Early nights: Assigning one night a week where everyone goes to bed early for the sake of their mental health can work for everyone. It helps normalise the issue because everyone needs early nights and can help your child feel supported.
If you are worried in any way about your child’s mental health, there are resources available, from following an expert on instagram and adapting their knowledge to your situation, to speaking to a healthcare or educational professional to find out what support is available.
- The Instagram expert: Dr. Emma Hepburn (opens in new tab)
- The Book: A Toolkit For Happiness (opens in new tab)
- The Journal: The Positive Doodle Diary (opens in new tab)
- The NHS: Every Mind Matters (opens in new tab)
There is no shame in talking openly about mental health with out children, about letting them know that you are their safe space, no judgement just listening and being there for them.
- How to start a conversation about mental health with your children (opens in new tab)
- Perinatal mental health (opens in new tab)
- Top 5 podcasts to listen to for better mental health (opens in new tab)
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