Updated: Feb 24, 2019
We've been talking a lot more about mental health and mental illness these days, and rightly so. But how much do we include our kids in the conversation? For some, the idea of discussing mental health doesn't sound that great of a topic for dinnertime discussion. I mean, sometimes the themes can be pretty heavy. The truth is, the more we engage children in having them understand and become more aware of their mental and emotional well-being, the better the long-term benefits.
So, how do we this? First, let's understand what mental illness is - a set of conditions characterised by change in thinking, emotion, or behaviour that causes a person distress.
Here are 3 ways to start teaching your kids about mental health and wellness:
Mountains of research and evidence have shown that children start to understand, reflect and respond to emotions in a relational way as early as infancy. Dr. Edward Tronick illustrated this in his "Still Face Experiments".
A good time to start teaching children about emotional health is when they are learning to talk. Start with giving them the vocabulary for their emotions, and encourage them to use it. You can make it into a game by looking through picture books and asking them to help identify how they think the characters are feeling. This exercise will also teach them empathy by encouraging them to take another person's perspective, and imagine their experience. As your child gets older, their increased awareness will help them identify when something is "off" with regard to their state of wellness. Because they have become accustomed to acknowledging and expressing their emotions, they will be less likely to attribute a stigma to their mental health, and seek support.
All emotions are normal and healthy. There are no "bad" emotions. Each emotion serves a purpose and they help us to survive. It is therefore important to normalize the emotional experience. Whenever your child is expressing anger, or fear, or anxiety, it is okay to assure them that those feelings are valid. Equally important (or one could argue, more importantly) is to teach your child how to get relief from distress. You can do this by helping them identify the source of their distress, understand why that makes them sad/angry/afraid/etc., and brainstorm with them on how to feel better.
We do this for physical pain, don't we? When our kid falls and they get a "boo-boo" we ask "What happened?" Then, when they explain themselves and we understand why they're crying we would either try to "kiss it to make it feel better" or get the dinosaur/princess band-aid on it, stat! The same goes for emotional pain. Validate, empathize, and soothe.
Be a role model
This is one of the best ways to effectively teach kids about...well, anything! As the "Still Face" experiment shows, children reflect and respond to what they see. So as parents, you'll find the mental health discussion much easier when you actually walk the talk! Validate, empathize and soothe your own feelings. Model self care. Acknowledge that sometimes your emotions too can become overwhelming. This is not to say that you should make your kid your therapist! But by simply normalizing the human emotional experience, we teach children an invaluable lesson in mental health and wellness.