“One of my friends recently told me that her parents never discussed feelings with her when she was a kid. Even now she still struggles because of this: with finding the right words to express herself, with keeping calm, and with generally understanding what she’s feeling,” explains psychologist Soesja Vogels.
This example shows just how important it is to talk about mental health with your children when you’re a parent. Because when it comes to talking about your feelings – as the cliché goes – it’s harder to teach an old dog new tricks.
The importance of discussing feelings with children
In the digital age, parents often tend to try soothing their children with the help of screens. “It’s sometimes easier to calm your kid down by sitting them in front of a cartoon.”
But in the long run, this isn’t a good strategy. Research shows that a child’s emotional development and their ability to manage their emotions may be harmed when smartphones and tablets are used for soothing purposes. So, what is a good strategy? Conversation.
When you’re a child it’s important to learn that talking about your feelings helps. “They need to know that this isn’t taboo and they don’t have to keep their feelings secret,” says Soesja. How do they learn how to do this? Through practice. And by looking to their parents to set a good example.
“When parents talk about their own feelings often and easily, then this encourages the kid to do the same. Particularly if talking about feelings and mental health is part of their daily routine, it will become easy for a kid to talk about these topics.”
How do you start a conversation about mental health with your child?
Children aren’t always going to want to have a serious conversation with their parents about their feelings. That’s particularly true for children in middle school. This means it’s good to wait for the right moment.
“It’s important to make sure your kid is feeling safe and comfortable when you start the conversation,” says Soesja. Sometimes children might choose the moment for themselves. For example, by giving you a small opening in the conversation. Take this opportunity to enter into a discussion.
Do you want to be the one to initiate the conversation? Then start by sharing something about yourself. Do you feel like your child is angry about something? Then give an example of the last time you felt angry and ask your child to do the same.
How should you conduct these conversations?
“Kids need to feel that they have the space to speak freely and ask questions. They shouldn’t feel afraid to get emotional. They need to know it’s okay,” says Soesja.
One of the things you can do as a parent to facilitate this is to acknowledge their problems. “Remember that different things are important to you when you’re a kid versus when you’re an adult. Something that feels very small and insignificant to you might be a huge deal to a kid.”
Another thing you can do is make sure you’re really listening. Parents really want to help out their children. “But in a conversation about mental health that’s not always necessary or useful.
So, try to avoid giving advice and instead ask your kid what they need: ‘Do you want me to just listen or are you looking for some advice?’ It might be the case that your kid just wants to tell you what’s going on,” explains Soesja.
This is particularly the case when your child is in middle school. “Parents are just not cool at this point. If parents start giving advice, it usually goes in one ear and out the other.”
During the conversation, metaphors and stories often work well. For example, if your child is too young to understand why her overworked uncle needed to miss her birthday, then use the metaphor of a broken leg: ‘If you broke your leg, what would you do? You’d go to the doctor and then stay home from school for a few days. For Uncle Levi, something has broken on the inside and that’s why the doctor needs him to stay home for a while.’
Or you can introduce the subject of mental health to your child through a book. Soesja: “A wide range of fabulous children’s books have already been written on this topic.” Soesja recommends the following titles: The Heavy Bag and The Color Thief.
Which phrases should you use in a conversation about mental health?
It depends on the age of your child as to which is the best approach to talking about mental health. “Parents are often pretty good at figuring out what their kids do or don’t understand yet,” says Soesja.
Children younger than the age of four might still struggle to understand abstract concepts. This means that conversations should focus on things they can see or hear. For example, if you’re at the playground and you see a kid crying, you can say to your child: ‘Look, he’s crying. He’s sad because he lost his ball.’ By doing this, your child will gradually learn about emotions.
Once your child gets to elementary school, you can start to be more specific. Children at this age are often full of questions. Make sure you’re giving these direct answers.
Children in this age group can already understand that there’s a relationship between the body and mind, and therefore that the way we feel mentally affects how we feel physically.
This means that it’s easy to explain to them how our hearts beat faster when we’re scared, just the way our hearts beat faster when we’ve been running. Talking about this and explaining these connections helps children to understand themselves better.
Teenagers are in the position to understand complex information. So, in conversations around mental health, treating them like equals is the best way to get through to them. You could do this by talking about your own mental health. With teenagers, it’s definitely important to keep checking in with them and to ask them whether they’re just looking to vent, seeking help coming up with solutions, or hoping for some parental advice.
Exercises you can do with your children
Keeping a journal can be a good way for your child to learn about managing their feelings. Soesja: “Together with your kid, choose a format that works for them. Whether it’s drawing, writing or a daily conversation.”
“In addition, relaxation exercises, meditation or mindfulness can also help kids,” says Soesja. Many adults these days now know their way around these tools. “But what many people don’t know is that there’s also a lot out there for kids too.” For example, check out this website.
Could you use some additional support and advice when it comes to having these conversations with your child, or do you feel that your child would benefit from a psychologist’s input? Then get in touch with us. The first consultation is always free.