I remember as a child how easy it was to say that I had a sore throat or earache but never quite having the words to explain that I felt sad. Sadness always seemed to need a reason, and it took me a long time to realise that many people simply feel sad sometimes. We all want to protect our children from the darker truths of life: mental illness, depression and its terrifying accomplices self-harm and suicide can feel so easily like things that happen to other families until you realise that no-one is safe from mental illness. In fact, pretending it doesn’t exist or that it won’t happen to your precious tribe is not going to help. Here are some ways to help your teenagers learn about mental health:
Keep an open conversation going
The subject of mental health is so broad and so personal that it deserves much more than a simple one-off conversation. It needs to be ongoing, open and unrestricted. It needs to be led by your teenager, this doesn’t mean that they need to do all the talking but if they are closed off, embarrassed, disinterested or distracted then you need to find a different time. They need to know that if they have any worries that they can come to you, not just worries about themselves but about their friends or peers too. They need to know that you are always available and ready to help when it comes to emotional matters.
Start as young as possible
You see the smallest children offering kisses to friends who fall over and asking for plasters when they bump themselves. An awareness of seeking help and comfort when we are physically hurt or unwell is completely normal. It is so important that we teach young children to react to emotional or mental pain in the same way. It could help to find a picture of someone who is sad and to ask your child why they think that person is sad. Listen to their reasons and then explain that actually there is no real reason. That sometimes people simply feel sad. That emotions can change like the weather and some people are more sensitive to this than others. You could then go on to say how there are lots of things you can do when you feel sad like that and that it can take a bit of practice until you find the things that make you truly happy. You can talk about the things that work for you or other you know; baking, cycling, painting, playing music, chatting with friends. This could then lead on to a gentle conversation where you talk about the importance of seeking help when your mental weather gets too tumultuous.
Lead by example
Explaining that you took the morning off because you were feeling stressed and needed to slow down, or that your daily run or yoga practice helps keep you balanced is a subtle way of teaching your child ways to practise good self-care without feeling like you are lecturing. Explain that alcohol makes you depressed or certain people make you anxious, also explain the things you do that make you feel wonderful, majestic and powerful. Invite them to join you or to share your strategies and to find their own. If they have had a horrendous day at school, suggest a romp through the woodlands or a good release against the punchbag or the sofa. Ask if they want to try your aromatherapy oils and teach them how to blend. Let them play their music as loud as their emotions. Ensure that home is the place where they can be themselves, feel what they need to and express what they are feeling.
Don’t be afraid to talk about things
The stigma surrounding mental illness comes from the fact that so many people are terrified of talking about it. It is much easier to stay quiet than to face the terrifying thought that people you know may battle silently with mental illnesses. It may not be easy for you to talk about it, but it is even harder for the teens who have no support or outlet. If you hear of incidences of self-harm in their year or mentions of exam stress and anxiety then talk to them about it. Why do they think these people feel that way? What would they do to relieve the situation?
Always listen before judging
If your child starts acting up, behaving out of character or causing problems then there may be something deeper at the root of it all. Don’t assume it is teenage rebellion. Don’t jump straight to punishments. Sit them down and talk to them with respect and patience. Give them the chance to explain anything that may be underlying. Listen more than you talk. A good opener would be,… “This isn’t like you, which makes me wonder if something else is going on. If something has happened or if you have any worries, I want you to know that you can tell me. My main concern is helping you. I’m not going to be angry, I just need to understand.”
Always be available
This isn’t always easy when so many of us juggle work commitments as well as a family. However, we should never be too busy for our children. Whether it is night terrors at 2am or turning the radio off when they come into the kitchen to show they have your full attention. This isn’t about dropping everything but it is about being there if anything big comes up. One of my favourite parts about working from home is that I am always there when my daughter gets in from school. This means she has the opportunity to rant and talk everything through immediately. I am always careful to avoid asking out right “how was your day?” as experience has taught me that the best way to get the conversation flowing is simply to greet her in a way that expresses how happy I am to see her and then ask if she wants a cup of tea and a snack. It is also important to understand that some people need more time on their own than others. Learn from your children what their needs are and appreciate that the need for personal space is likely to increase as they grow older.
Find ways to connect that are right for your child
Some children struggle to talk about things but may be able to write them down. Myself and my daughter share a notebook where we can write each other messages if we want to share things. I also find that car journeys are great for delving into things without making someone feel confronted. In my work as a mentor with teenagers, I’ve also found games such as table tennis, basketball and table football to be a great way to chat about things openly as well as building rapport. If you have more than one child then finding alone time with each one will be tricky but so worthwhile.
Have tools in place for the whole family
We all know that eating a healthy, balanced and nutritious diet; exercise; mindfulness; making time for relaxation; limiting alcohol; talking problems through; spending time in nature; gardening and getting plenty of sleep can really help us to stay mentally balanced and healthy. Keeping these activities as a central part of your family life, as well as ensuring you get plenty of quality time together as well as time to yourselves is a great way to ensure everyone stays well. By engaging in these activities on a regular basis you are leading by example without having to overstate your motives.
Encourage activities that can boost mental wellbeing
Self-expression can be invaluable for your mental health so activities such as making music, dance, art, theatre and writing are essential. If your teen shows an aptitude or interest in any of these things then it is so important that you ensure that they have the support, encouragement, resources, time and space to pursue them. Any physical activity is wonderful too. Studies show that children are more likely to be drawn to these activities if the adults in their life practise them, so make plenty of time for artistic pursuits in your family life.
Essentially, by following this guidance you’ll be arming your teens with coping skills that will stay with them for life. Unfortunately, very little of the school syllabus is devoted to learning about mental health issues. If you home school, then you will have more freedom to delve into these areas as part of their studies. Teaching your children to not be scared or ashamed of mental illness will also mean that they will feel more equipped to help others who may be going through mental health challenges. We teach our children so many practical skills, it’s time we all started teaching them how to look after their mental wellbeing too.
Freelance writer, author and poet