Mental health matters: teaching your teenagers how to stay afloat

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

Could a doula transform your birthing experience?

If you are looking for support throughout pregnancy, birth and through the post-partum period then a doula is a wonderful option. A doula is a fully-trained individual (usually female) who will offer practical and emotional support during this momentous period of your life.

What are the advantages of having a doula?

A doula isn’t there to offer specific advice but rather to help you to find the information you need to make the right choices for you. They will offer support and help you to feel confident and prepared for the birth. Some doulas will only be present at the birth, while others will continue to visit during the post-partum period.

A doula will not form part of your medical team. They are privately hired to assist you. Doulas are not limited to the type of birth they will assist with. They can help with homebirths, active births and elective caesareans. Many women and families find it a comfort to know that someone who has devoted their life to learning about childbirth will be present. As well as being trained, a doula will have been present at numerous births and is likely to be a mother herself. Knowing that she has this insight can be greatly reassuring.

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What exactly does a doula do?

It is usual for a doula to initially meet with an expectant mother, allowing her to ask any questions and also to ascertain if the relationship works. After the initial meeting it is likely that the doula will visit the home of the mother once or twice more, often with the partner present if he is available. During these sessions the doula can help the women to arrive at her own birth choices as well as bonding together in preparation for the birth. Most doulas will be available after these sessions to discuss any worries by phone or email. From around 38 weeks gestation onwards the doula will be available 24 hours day, they will be waiting on stand by for the labour to start. The couple will decide at which point to phone the doula and she will meet them, often at their house during early labour. Staying with them in the case of a home birth or travelling to hospital with them if this is their plan.

During the labour the doula will be able to offer suggestions to do with breathing, birth positions, relaxation techniques, movement and coping with pain. She will use the knowledge of the individual that she has built up over the previous sessions to guide in the best way for them. The doula can also ensure that the partner is involved in the labour and feels comfortable and confident. The doula will remain with the couple until the baby is born and will only leave when she is confident that the family is settled. Birth doulas will usually visit one more time, during this session it can be helpful for the mother to talk through the birthing experience. The doula can also offer assistance on breastfeeding.

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Many doulas are available for the birth and the entirety of the postnatal period. Some doulas only cover the postnatal period. Some women choose to book a doula after giving birth as they feel the need for extra emotional and practical support. The doula can be available to them for as long as they need it.

A doula is there to listen, support and encourage. They will not judge you. Doulas can offer you an extra pair of hands, allowing you to rest while they take care of the baby or helping with practical tasks around the house. Their role is to offer gentle support and to help you shine as a parent.

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How do I go about getting a doula?

You can find local doulas through the following organisations:

Doula UK

Australian Doulas

DONA International

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A quick internet search will also give you details on doulas in your local area. You may like to find someone who comes recommended. Your midwife may have a few suggestions or you could even ask in local parenting groups on social media. Once you have found someone who seems promising, it is perfectly ok to ask to meet up first before you commit. They will understand how important it is to get the right person. Being present at someone’s birth is a rare honour and they will respect this.

A doula usually works on a freelance basis and costs between £15-30/hr dependent on experience. It is important to check that your doula is fully accredited and qualified. Every doula offers different unique services and many have different pricing plans, so it is worth talking things through with a doula if your budget is limited as you may still be able to afford some valuable sessions together.

In cases where their simply isn’t the money to pay for this service, you may like to ask a friend to act as a doula and be present at your birth as well as your partner or birth partner. There is no denying that, as you embark on this incredible adventure, having someone to hand whose sole role is to support you and encourage is a wonderful thing.

How to bring mindfulness into your day

When you bring your focus into the present moment, you can really check in with yourself, acknowledging your feelings and finding acceptance. Mindfulness can be deeply therapeutic and rewarding, some may even say life-changing! Although developing a regular seated practice of mindfulness meditation is a wonderful way to connect with yourself, there are plenty of other ways in which you can live more mindfully.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

  • stress relief

  • decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression

  • improved mood, memory and attention span

  • decreased addictive and self-destructive behaviour

  • improved brain function

  • reduced blood pressure (lowering the risk of hypertension and improving circulatory health)

  • improved immunity

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Seated practice

The key elements of mindfulness involve really connecting with your senses and listening to the state of your body and your emotional climate. By sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, your hands softly folded in your lap and your eyes gently closed you can start this deep listening process. Mindfulness practice is about noticing your body rather than changing anything. Connect with your feet on the floor, feel their weight, acknowledge the sensation. Note how your legs feel against the chair. Breathe slowly and pay close attention to how the air feels as it moves in and out of your nostrils. Softly scan through your body, like a wave caressing the beach, note any areas of discomfort. As you breathe your body will naturally soften and adjust.

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To start with you may find that your mind wanders and you start to worry about work commitments, what to have for dinner and your to do list. You may only find a few moments of pure calmness before you start thinking about things. That’s ok. Give this practice time and patience. You might like to start off doing it in a quiet home, with few distractions, unplugging the phone and finding a quiet space. In time you’ll be able to do it for longer periods, regardless of distractions. Waiting rooms, queues, train and tube journeys can all be ideal settings for practising mindfulness, taking you away from the chaos around you and connecting you with your own inner stillness.

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The mindfulness walk

If you are walking somewhere familiar where you don’t need to worry about directions, then practising mindfulness as you go is a wonderful activity. This gives you a real chance to connect with your senses. What can you see? What can you smell? How does the feeling of the path change as you walk through different areas? Walking through an ever changing environment really allows you to get lost in your senses which is a fantastic way to acknowledge yourself and check in with how you are feeling. You might like to schedule in a short walk each day as part of your mindfulness practise, or use mindfulness as a way to instil a feeling of calm and confidence before certain engagements.

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Mindful bathing

Baths and showers are a wonderful way to get in touch with your senses. The calming sound of running water, the potential to use beautiful fragrances, the opportunity to explore sensations: trickles of water pouring soothingly over your scalp, gently scrubbing your skin, rubbing away any tight areas in your neck muscles. Your daily bath or shower can become a powerful mindfulness ritual if you allow yourself the time to truly connect with your body, rather than rushing to get clean as quickly as possible so you can get on with your day. Mindfulness is all about slowing down and simply being. You might like to create your own aromatherapy blend to enhance the experience. Combine 2 drops each of rose, lavender and bergamot essential oil with 2 tablespoons of your choice of milk (dairy, soya or nut milks are all fine). Rose brings comfort, lavender is calming and bergamot is wonderful for mental clarity. Swirl the oils around your bath, or place the container on the floor of your shower to create a beautiful aromatic steam. Breathe deeply and connect with yourself.

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Mindful exercise

There is no denying that exercise is a brilliant way to stay mentally healthy as well as physically healthy. Mood-busting endorphins can help us through the most stressful of times. Yet, how often do you occupy your mind with other things while you are working out? You may listen to audio books or podcasts, watch TV or zone in on music videos in the gym or even use the time to problem solve issues related to work, home or your children. Ideally, whether you indulge in yoga, swimming or aerobics, you’ll use this time mindfully. Creating a calm mind while your body is so actively engaged can result in a much more fulfilling workout. Feeling each movement and connecting it will not only help you to be aware of your body and reduce the chance of injury but it is also a beautiful way to stay mindful.

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Mindful meals

We all need to eat and really enjoying your food and savouring it is a wonderful way to practise mindfulness. Think of the colours, tastes, textures and smells you get with a good meal. Celebrate each mouthful. Grabbing food as you dash out the door can easily become a habit when you are balancing a lot of responsibility, but that simply means you need to slow down more than ever. Stop eating at your desk. You’ll find that connecting with each meal in this way will also mean you may eventually be more drawn to nutritious wholesome food and may make better food choices.

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Even a simple tea break can become an expression of mindfulness. Fragrant fruit teas, delicate green tea and herbal infusions are ideal for this practice. Choose a mug that feels wonderful in your hands, something that looks lovely too, or choose to enjoy your tea beside a vase of freshly cut flowers or a beautiful view. Taste every sip, explore how it feels as it warms your lips and tongue. Be aware of its journey down your throat. Even water can be drunk mindfully, you might like to add ice to increase the sensation or add a slice of lemon for additional sensory benefits. A mindful tea break is a wonderful way to recharge and refresh without taking up too much of your time.

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So next time you feel like your day is too busy to find time for mindfulness ask yourself this… Will I sit today? Will I leave the house today? Will I bathe today? Will I exercise today? Will I eat today? Will I drink today? These little windows are the perfect opportunity to allow mindfulness into your life.

References (for benefits of mindfulness)

Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J. Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K. & Sheridan, J. F. (2003) ‘Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, pp. 564–70; Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feg, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M., Fan, M. & Posner, M. (2007), ‘Short-term med- itation training improves attention and self-regulation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, pp. 17152–6.

Brown, Kirk Warren, Ryan, Richard, M. (2003), ‘The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), pp. 822–48; Lykins, Emily L. B. & Baer, Ruth A. (2009), ‘Psychological Functioning in a Sample of Long-Term Practitioners of Mindfulness Meditation’, Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(3), pp. 226–41.

Bowen, S., et al. (2006), ‘Mindfulness Meditation and Substance Use in an Incarcerated Population’, Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 20, pp. 343–7.

Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feg, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M., Fan, M. & Posner, M. (2007), ‘Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, pp. 17152–6.

Fabulous Fish Pie – guest post

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Many thanks to Samantha Quinn from Mumma Love Organics for this wonderful fish pie recipe 

Fish is an excellent source of vitamin B, and with the added bonus of the sneaky veg in the topping, this is an all-round stellar dish.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

 Ingredients

600g white potatoes (peeled and halved)

400g sweet potatoes (peeled and cut into chunks)

3 tbsp. double cream

1 pack of fish pie mix (around 500g of cod, salmon, smoked haddock etc)

1 tbsp. thyme

75g cheese (grated)

25g butter

25g plain flour

1 small leek (finely chopped)

400ml milk

1 tbsp. Dijon mustard

20g parsley

Method

Preheat the oven to 180oC. Cook the white potatoes in boiling water until tender (around 25 minutes). At the same time, steam the sweet potatoes for around 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. When the white potatoes are cooked, drain them and add the sweet potatoes and the double cream. Mash and set aside.

Place the butter into a saucepan and gently melt it on a medium heat. Then add in the leek and fry for around 3-4 minutes. Gently sieve in the flour whilst stirring continuously. Slowly whisk in the milk, a little at a time (a balloon whisk is ideal). Bring the mixture to the boil and stir to remove all lumps. Cook for another 5-7 minutes to allow it to thicken. Once thickened, add the thyme, mustard, and cheese and allow to melt. Stir the fish into the sauce before placing it in an ovenproof dish.

Smooth the mash over the top, forking the surface. Bake for around 35 minutes until the potato is nice and golden.

Serve immediately.

Natural Mumma’s tip: For a vegan alternative, use vegan double cream and cheese and replace the butter with olive oil. Use soya or almond milk to replace the dairy milk and use 3-4 generous handfuls of  vegetables and pulses instead of the fish (kale, butterbeans and roasted parsnips make a delicious pie). 

Pregnancy Pleasures – guest post

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Many thanks to Samantha Quinn from Mumma Love Organics for this lovely post

Pregnancy is such a special time- full of wonder, excitement and anticipation of what lies ahead. But it can also be a time of physical and emotional strain, as your mind and body is forced to adjust and adapt to a new way of living. How you deal with the various changes and pressures that you’re likely to face is up to you, but one thing is for sure. These are nine months where taking care of yourself is a must. If not for you, then for that little baby nestled inside of you. Here is our guide to pregnancy pleasures- top tips on taking care of yourself when you’re expecting.

Listen to your body

Our first tip is simple and yet so, so important. During pregnancy your body goes through so many changes as your baby grows and develops and it’s inevitable that you’re going to feel more tired as the week’s progress. There are going to be things that you’re unable to do, and times where you need to slow down too. This is not admitting defeat; this is being in tune with your body and knowing when enough is enough. In addition to tiredness in pregnancy, some women also experience pain as their body stretches to accommodate their growing baby. Of course, your first port of call should be the doctor, but if you are looking for some alternative methods of easing stresses and strains, here are some natural self-care remedies you can try:

Yoga is a wonderful way to build energy and clear your mind when you’re feeling weary or run down. Speak to your GP or midwife before you start, and make sure that you follow a pre-natal program at all times during your pregnancy. Alongside hormones and physical changes, studies have shown that tiredness in pregnancy can also be caused by poor posture and lack of exercise, both of which can be alleviated by yoga. Yoga can also help to relax, soothe your mind, ease pain from SPD, Sciatica and back pain. Additionally, yoga can be a great way to prepare the body and mind for birth too.

Sing! Yes, that’s right. Singing is actually really good for you anyway, but during pregnancy there are even more benefits. It can help to relax you, reduce pain and increase oxygen levels. Not only that, but singing to your unborn baby is also a wonderful sensory experience for them, and results in an auditory massage for those tiny ears

Take time out to relax. Every day, if you can. Advise those around you that you are taking an hour, and you would prefer not to be distracted. Use this time to read a book, listen to music, or to simply be. It’s important to have that time so that you can reconnect with your body and mind after a busy day.

Prenatal massage. This can be a wonderful way to relax the body and mind, and if you can’t visit a professional masseur, get your partner to do it for you. A simple foot rub can be a great way to unwind and to keep romance alive too.

Deep breathing is a great way to calm yourself in times of stress. Focus on taking deep breaths in and out through your nose and rest assured that you are easing muscle tension, lowering your heart rate and calming your min

Reflexology in pregnancy is another fantastic way to reduce pain and stress in pregnancy, and can be used in childbirth too.

Prenatal acupuncture is also worth considering, if you are suffering from nausea, sickness or headaches.

Eat well

A good, healthy diet in pregnancy is essential, because you are providing nutrition for your unborn baby too. Whatever you eat, your baby eats, so you want each mouthful to be meaningful. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the odd treat (we’re all human, after all!) but the majority of your meals and snacks should be filled with vitamins and minerals that will keep you and baby happy and healthy. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that each meal has a balance of the following:

  • Fat. Yes, really. Fat is essential for the health of you and baby, and omega-3 fatty acids will help to nourish and support fetal development. It also aids brain development and boosts the nervous and immune systems.
  • Probiotics help to promote a healthy immune system and fights harmful bacteria, so including this in your diet is a must.
  • Fruit and vegetables. Remember your five a day!
  • Carbohydrates. Ditch the low carb diet and choose healthy options such as wholemeal bread and brown rice.
  • Protein. Lots of lean meat and fish, beans pulses and nuts will help to support healthy development and boost your own energy levels.
  • Dairy is also important in pregnancy because your baby needs that calcium for healthy bones and teeth- as do you! Eat plenty of cheese and yogurt, and your milk too.

Make sure that you prepare your food safely and if you’re feeling unwell (particularly in the early days when morning sickness tends to be at its worse) try to eat little and often

Exercise

Not only will staying active during pregnancy help to prepare your body for the impending birth, but it will also help you to regulate weight gain and ease emotional stresses too. Make sure that you consult your doctor before you start any new exercise program, and as already mentioned it’s vital to listen to your body. Don’t exercise if you feel unwell and stop if you feel tired or are in any pain at all. If you exercise at home, always follow a prenatal program and keep baby in mind at all times. Some great forms of exercise in pregnancy include:

  • Swimming. This is such a wonderful way to not only clear the mind, but to gently tone the body too. Swimming is a low impact exercise that uses the larger muscles (legs and arms) and is an excellent choice for a cardiovascular workout. Swimming is also great for helping you to feel weightless and to counteract the back strain that occurs as the belly grows.
  • Pilates. Like yoga, Pilates helps to relax the mind, and forces you to focus on your breathing. Movements in Pilates focus on the core, and strengthening the stomach muscles ahead of childbirth. It also concentrates on pelvic floor muscles and helps with posture, balance and strength- also essential for childbirth.
  • Walking. Gentle, low impact and free. Walking in the fresh air is a superb way to stay active during pregnancy.

Don’t forget to stretch well before and after exercising, and avoid strenuous and contact sports while you’re pregnant please. It also goes without saying that activities such as scuba diving should be avoided, and try not to lie flat on your back after the first trimester too.