5 ways to support your children's mental health
We all have mental health, just like we have physical health. In fact, if you’re someone who values exercise and getting moving, you’ll likely have noticed that one can really affect the other. Sometimes our mental health might be good, sometimes not so good. A global pandemic and all of the losses, changes and uncertainties that have come with it can certainly throw challenges to how we see the world and how we respond to it. And it’s just the same for our children. They are experiencing a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty and have had to deal with sudden changes to routine, the loss of contact with friends, teachers, freedoms and being able to take part in activities they enjoy in the same way. Let’s face it, if you’d have told me that a zoom tennis session in my kitchen would be the new normal this time last year, I’d have laughed at you. With all of that in mind, it’s no surprise that you may notice changes in your children’s behaviour, wellbeing and emotions.
The theme of this year’s Children’s Mental Health week is ‘Express yourself’. So what could that look like to support your children?
1) Normalise emotions.
It’s okay to feel things. It’s okay to feel sad, anxious or angry. Think about how you experience and deal with your own emotions: children learn from what we do as much as what we say. What gets expressed can be spoken about and explored. Use empathy to reflect what emotions you are noticing: ‘I really hear that you feel angry that covid means you miss out on seeing your friends. I know how important your friends are to you’.
2) Offer regular time and space for your children.
Get properly involved with them for 20-30 minutes a day. We are all busy at the moment juggling lots of things and perhaps that pressure to wear the teacher hat means a shift in relationship with your child. Giving a space without distractions or when you are trying to do other things is really precious. Let them set the agenda and talk about what’s important to them. Some days that may be the latest Nintendo game they have their eye on and others it may be worries or fears that they have. Offering that space and your full attention can mean that they can talk to you when they need to.
3) Get creative.
Children won’t always have the language and words like adults do to express how they are feeling, and nor should we expect them to. Language and a more ‘thinking’ way of being in the world develops over the years. Get out the art materials – children can express things creatively and enjoy the process of this, putting things down on paper that there may not be words for. You don’t need to interpret anything or do anything with it- just talk to your child about their creation and see what comes up. Why not join in with them- use some art materials to express yourself too. As adults we can often become fixed on the end product but taking that pressure off ourselves and enjoying the process can be therapeutic and relaxing in itself.
4) Help them to think about what helps them if they are feeling angry or sad. Express anger through physical activity such as safely punching a pillow or having a good scream and shout to release the energy. Think about what helps when they feel sad: a cuddle? Doing something relaxing? Getting some fresh air? Helping them to express their needs and listen to themselves from a young age will help them through life to both acknowledge their feelings and think about what they might need to feel better.
5) Have boundaries and routines but be kind to yourself too.
In a time when the days can blend together, having a routine can be especially important. For example, getting the kids out for that daily walk will offer a change of scene, fresh air, time to talk and run around. Challenge yourselves to find something different in your walk by spotting signs of spring, changes you notice, really being present to what’s changing around you each time. When the world outside is feeling uncertain, trying to offer a feeling of safety and certainty through routines and rituals at home can support children. That said, I think for parents there is something important about giving ourselves a break- this is a global pandemic and we are shifting our roles and responsibilities constantly in an ever-changing landscape. So don’t expect to be able to do everything, and allow yourself time to rest, reset and have some solitude. I have realized that time alone without any demands or requests is really important to my own mental health and it’s absolutely ok to make time for that.
Jane Williams is a therapist working with adults in the NHS in Cambridgeshire. She has a private practice in Bedford and online. She is a trainer for the children’s mental health charity Place2Be, working with school staff and those embarking on training to become therapists.