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Talking to children about mental health

Published by Isbi Schools on Friday 8th of October 2021 12:11:40 PM

Mental health is discussed a lot more openly these days, and with good reason. According to Mind, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England. Over the last 18 months we’ve all had to deal with the fear, disruption and isolation caused by the pandemic, meaning that many more people are struggling.

Children especially will have found the last two years difficult. For an adult of 40, two years is just 5% of their life, but for a child of 10, two years is 20% of their life. That’s more disruption, with less memory of “normal life” to fall back on.

The way we talk to our children about mental health can influence their attitude as they get older. So what do we say? How do we approach a subject that for many adults can still be considered a taboo or scary to talk about?

Be honest

Talk about mental health in the same way as you would physical health - if you know someone who is struggling with their mental health, be honest about that. Explain that many people can feel sad or anxious without necessarily knowing why, and that it’s normal and can help to talk. Just knowing that our brains can become unwell in the same way our bodies can, can be of great help to a child who is struggling with their own thoughts or feelings.

Explain that brains and bodies are linked

In young children, it’s important that they realise that their thoughts and feelings can cause physical sensations in their bodies such as a racing heart when they are feeling nervous or scared.

Make it normal to discuss feelings

If you routinely discuss how you feel, it makes it normal for children to talk about their feelings. Children can often find it hard to know the “right” words for how they are feeling but this is something you can work on together

Don’t push it

If your child doesn’t want to talk, don’t try and make them. Just make sure they know that you are ready whenever they are. It’s also important therefore, to be open to listening when they are telling you the details of their latest computer game or TV show - so that they know you will listen when they talk. To a child, the computer game is just as important as a discussion about how they’re feeling.

Use stories and real-life examples

There are lots of books available for children of all ages which discuss mental health these days. As well as this, there may be a character in a TV show or film you’ve watched together who has a mental health problem. This can help to illustrate what you mean, allowing the child to better understand. 

Reassure them that there is no blame

Children will often feel that things are their fault - whether that is a problem with their own mental health, or that of a parent or friend. It’s important to reassure them - repeatedly if necessary - that these things are nobody’s fault and nobody is to blame. 

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