Children’s mental health…what’s really important?

This week marks children’s mental health week. A topic that has always been out there, always important, but greatly intensified by the pandemic. As parents, we have worries about how our children have coped with being ‘cooped up’ for so long, worries about if our children will ‘catch up’ on missed learning and opportunities, worries about their social and emotional wellbeing, will they cope going to nursery or school when all they have been used to is their homes and their closest families?

I don’t think worries ever really go away as a parent. It seems like there will always be something to worry about!

It is true that children’s mental health is a growing topic of concern. However, I didn’t want this blog to be all doom and gloom. I also didn’t want to write about all the things you should do as a parent to ensure your child doesn’t have mental health concerns. Of course, there are many things we CAN do, and those things are out there…enjoy nature, take the time to play, eat nutritious meals, come to our Mindful Movers® classes (haha!) etc. Those things ARE important, but they AREN’T everything. Because what if you can’t do all those things all the time? Does that make you a bad parent? NO!!! Or what if you do all those things and your child still struggles with their mental health? Did you not do it right? NO!!! Our lives have constraints, whether that’s money, time, family, work…there are a number of things that make our lives what they are.  

As a teacher, I have worked with children from all walks of life. Children who grew up in extremely wealthy households with a huge variety of opportunities given to them; as well as refugees, children whose families had fled war stricken countries to try and make a life for themselves elsewhere, with very little belongings to call their own.

If there is one thing I have learnt through my years of teaching, is that every child is unique.

All with differing backgrounds and experiences. Essentially though, that doesn’t always matter when it comes to mental health. I believe, that what does matter, are two very important things…

Awareness and Acceptance

Awareness and acceptance that life has ups and downs. Awareness and acceptance of our own feelings. Awareness and acceptance of our identity. Awareness and acceptance of our abilities. Let us bring our children up to be aware of themselves, where they come from, where they belong, their abilities and their achievements. Let us bring them up in the knowledge that all of that is accepted by their family, their friends, society, but most importantly, themselves.  

I am by no means a mental health expert, in my career I have had some training, but not enough to say that I am able to support children with mental health needs. I have however seen many children feel crushed because they haven’t done well in a test. I have seen children completely mentally shut down because they find a task challenging. Or feel deflated after playtime because their friend chose to play with someone else. In those situations, it’s all too easy to say, ‘there there, you’ll get over it, it’s not a big problem, you’ll forget about it after a while’. Isn’t this teaching our children that their feelings of sadness aren’t important, because those things are ‘small problems’?

To them, those situations are big things, and they are experiencing very real emotions because of them.

So what if we change that conversation to, ‘How did that make you feel? Why do you feel that way? What can I do to help you? What could you do to help you?’. It might help children to realise that everyday will have ups and downs. Everyday we may feel happy, sad, excited, nervous, anxious even. If our youngest children are taught to recognise those emotions, be able to talk about them, and be able to deal with them together, with support from loved ones; then when they grow up (when the ‘really big stuff’ gets them down) they have already learnt the skills they need to reach out to others, to talk, to understand how they are feeling, to accept it, and hopefully learn what to do to help. Children may feel listened to, accepted and valued. And isn’t that what we want for our children?   

If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching the film ‘Inside Out’. In this film, a young girl is moved away from her home where she grew up. She had to move away from her school, her friends, her hobbies. The film follows her emotions, and the turmoil that the big move had caused. This film, in my opinion, is ground-breaking. Because it shows children (in a fun and friendly way) that we have emotions, and that those emotions are OK. It teaches children to be aware of their emotions, and to accept them when they arise.

To be aware of ourselves and our emotions, is the first step in being able to deal with them.

So although those ‘checklists’ are important, they aren’t everything. Two words help to keep things simple, ‘awareness’ and ‘acceptance’. If you can help your children with those, then you’re providing them with the building blocks they need to be able to cope with and manage their emotions when they arise – which inevitably they will.