How to discuss mental health with your child

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With an increased amount of support in society for the once undiscussed subject of mental health, we are all hopefully finding it a lot easier to talk about mental health struggles. But it is one thing speaking to another adult. How can we broach the subject with our children? Gail Buckie, Edinburgh based blogger and mum of two who writes at MumForce shares her story about what works for her.

Discussing mental health with your children is no easy task, it can feel awkward, forced and unorthodox. We can’t ignore the issue though and hope it goes away by itself because from my experience it doesn’t. Did you know that anxiety disorders are the leading mental health challenge with children? And that 80% of children who would qualify for an anxiety diagnosis go un-diagnosed and untreated? Modern life is getting more stressful by the day, the current climate and pressures of social media, it is not surprising that anxiety in children is on the up.

How to talk about mental health issues with a sensitive child

My daughter is a sensitive child, I see so much of my anxieties and insecurities in her and it scares me. I am not criticising my own parents but when I was going through my own issues as a child/teen they just didn’t have the information there is now, it was not their fault. They were brought up with the whole “shut up and get on with it mentality” and though this may work for some, for others like myself, it’s the worst thing you can say. I was also completely unaware of mental health, it was something that was never spoken about, because of this I often felt I was the only person in the world feeling the way I did. I felt like an outcast, a weirdo and so kept it all in until I couldn’t contain it anymore.

I want to provide my children with an open space at home, so if they feel like everything is failing, they can come to me and I will hold their hand and do my best to understand. I will listen, talk to them about how they are feeling and will figure out how best to go forward, a decision we make together. This can be hard but if my struggles have taught me anything, it’s that what works for one person, may not work for the next.

Tips for maintaining children’s well-being

My aim with my children is to manage and maintain a balanced sense of well-being. We have to be completely open and honest about the good and bad that comes with mental health. Everyone has mental health, good or bad it’s a massive part of who we are. Allowing our children to disclose their emotions and feelings in a safe environment at home, will not only help improve their relationship with themselves (and their carers) but ultimately improve communication skills as a whole.

Finding time as a busy parent may seem impossible and its not a great idea to start chat in the middle of a meltdown as it could be hard for the little ears to take it all on when they are already emotionally overwhelmed. I find the moments when we are winding down or relaxation are often as good starting point, bath time really works for us as there are less distractions like the TV or tablet, bringing in stories that help the matter can really make a point without it all feeling too forced or affected.

Allowing our children the right to privacy is essential, especially as they grow. We have to understand and be patient that they may not want to talk somewhere they don’t feel comfortable or safe, remember they may be scared of others hearing about their feeling so find a quiet familiar place like their bedroom to chat.

When it comes to discussing my mental anxieties with my children, I try and be open and express how I am feeling in hopes to normalise being vocal. If they do see me crying or becoming angry I try to be as honest as I can for them to understand as they are still very young. I use language they can understand, like “ This…has made me so angry that I have got myself upset.”

The fears and anxieties we all experience are part of normal life and an important part of child development. The ‘fight or flight’ impulses that we need for survival are there for a reason but we can learn to breathe through the moment to regain some feelings of control, and better understand our own limits.

As a child I carried my anxieties silently and allowed them to overpower me till the point I started avoiding, places, people and things I used to love. I developed abdominal migraines, where my emotional fears were so strong that it would physically affect my body. Many times my dad had to pick me up from activities or social occasions because I was physically throwing up due to getting so worked up. As I have got older, I understand now that the “my tummy hurts” can be because of the stress hormone, cortisol increasing stomach acid and causing discomfort, so I always pay attention to that.

Anxiety and worries are all normal parts of life and healthy development but too much anxiety can be detrimental. It’s how us as parents deal with and support our little ones that will help them navigate any future stresses, and influence how they operate as adults. I know this all sounds scary, but we can forget just how resilient they can be. However you know your child best – if you really are concerned about your child’s mental health or your own, then go speak to your local health professional.

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About the author:
You can catch up with Gail at her blog and social channels.

Blog: MumForce

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