With 1st to 7th February marking Children’s Mental Health Week, we talk to Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Mark Johnson on normalising the process of talking about mental health with our children – and offer practical tips on how to do it.
When it comes to the relationship between parenting, children, and mental wellbeing, perhaps cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said it best:
“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think,” she once noted – and it’s a principle that lies at the heart of how we help our children understand and communicate their experiences of mental health as they grow.
Whether they want to be a doctor, an artist, or the next Neil Armstrong, parents and carers are at the forefront of helping children define what their future looks like in an ever-changing world. But an important part of that future lies in how we nurture young healthy minds, and equip our children with not only the tools to understand their own mental health, but also to talk about it, free from shame or stigma.
Whether they’re four or 14, accomplishing this goal starts with simple connections, according to Dr Mark Johnson, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist who specialises in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
“Connection is about feeling that you have purpose, confidence, and that you’re understood and accepted by the people around you,” explains Dr Mark. “It’s a key aspect of mental health.
“We communicate and connect with our children from the minute they are born,” he adds. “We do that in many key ways such as through touch, smell, eye contact and the sounds that we make – all of those interactions that allow us to attach and feel safe through repeated and predictable experience.”
But how can we lean on our existing connections in a way that leads to honest conversations with our children? Some of it is about reframing how we think about mental health and the perceived pressures of saying the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ things.
“It’s really important that we normalise talking about mental health,” Dr Mark nods. “Within the context of the pandemic, parents and children are faced with huge expectations on so many different levels. Adding another pressure that parents need to do or say ‘exactly the right thing at the right time’ when it comes to their child’s mental health might simply cause more stress or worry.
“It’s important to recognise that parents know their children better than anyone, and that useful conversations about mental health can happen in various ways without too much planning. We should be encouraging the idea that anyone can be a good communicator with their child.”
How to foster meaningful communication with your child on mental health
Depending on your starting point, encouraging your child to open up on their emotional and mental wellbeing may take a little time – but there are a few different tools you can use to encourage meaningful connections. With younger children, Dr Mark suggests strengthening your communication through play, metaphor, and storytelling.
“There’s that phrase that says, ‘play is the child’s work’,” Dr Mark explains. “That’s absolutely true. Engaging in play is so vital, because it’s the arena where a child truly learns, builds skills, and gets to develop a sense of competence and mastery in their relationships with others. You can see that in any playground for example – it’s so key to helping them learn to communicate.
“For younger children, it’s really important that you help them physically regulate when talking. That might come in the form of kicking a ball, going for a walk, or sitting shoulder to shoulder whilst colouring in, or in the car with music on. Imaginary play, storytelling, and use of metaphor can be really useful to get conversations going.
"For example, if you’re talking with a child about something challenging, like toileting issues or avoiding school, you can try to externalise that specific worry. You might give it a name, or use art to visualise and role play scenes that reinforce that they’re not alone and aren’t the only one to experience this."
With older children, Dr Mark recommends finding ‘natural points of entry’ that can spark a conversation, whether that’s a storyline in a TV show, a conversation about a neighbour, or a post on social media. Taking time out to be fully present with your child, even for 15 minutes can make a difference and can open up conversations which you didn’t expect could happen.
“I think it’s important to just be curious,” Dr Mark affirms. “As parents and carers, sometimes we experience the pressure of needing to be the expert, advising our children without room for error or mistakes.
“In reality, although children are finding their way they’re still the expert of their own experiences, and what can be most helpful is to adopt a ‘not-knowing position’, instead asking them ‘what is that like for you?’. When our children have the experience that they can teach us something, it can really motivate them to let us into their world. Interestingly, when that happens they can also become more curious about what we think and may be more receptive to help and support.
As your child opens up on their own mental health, you might feel like sharing your own experiences with them. But how much of your experiences should you share in those moments?
“It’s a very nuanced issue, and depends on you as a parent, and your own unique experiences,” Dr Mark nods. “Openness is important, but what’s more important is that you’re holding their needs foremost in your mind when having the conversation. The key is listening intently, recognising their feelings, and reinforcing that support is there when needed.
5 ways to connect with your child on their mental health
1. Be self-compassionate
“Parents are likely to be the most able, the most available, and the most coherent in supporting their children around a conversation on mental health when they are compassionate with themselves, when they are feeling calm, and are looking after their own mental health advises Dr Mark. This can be strengthened through taking regular breaks, finding ways to connect with others, getting exercise, and doing something for a friend or relative.
2. Model curiosity
Instead of considering yourself as the one giving advice, be open and curious to asking more questions about how your child’s experience of mental health feels for them. Allow them to teach you about their experience and seek to validate their responses.
3. Be honest
Strengthening your connection with your child relies on giving them a safe, supportive environment to share. Let them ask questions, acknowledge that things aren’t easy, and be prepared to admit that you don’t always have the answers. Reinforce your availability for future conversations.
4. Choose your moments
Starting a conversation on mental health works best when both you and your child are open and receptive to talking – so the moment after they’ve had an argument with their best friend, or you’ve had a stressful day at work might not be the best time for either of you. “We’re much more attuned and better able to communicate when we’re calm. Getting our bodies moving by walking, playing, or focusing on a task together can really help,” Dr Mark suggests.
5. Find a conversation starter
Whether they relate better to storybooks, music, or their favourite TV character, finding natural entry points for meaningful conversation on emotions and relationships can be surprisingly effective.
To find out more about Dr Mark, follow him on Twitter here.