Mental health and young children

Family Health Diary

October brings with it international mental health awareness week – but really, it’s a subject that doesn’t just pop up in conversation neatly and conveniently for one week of the year. It’s one of those gnarly subjects that can rule your life any old week or month of the year, when things are out of sync.

I’m not sure there’d be many people who can truthfully say they have never at some point in their lives been somewhere on a sliding scale of grappling with feeling inadequate, worried, anxious, overwhelmed or even depressed.

It’s hard enough as an adult when you’re trying to deal with these sorts of unwelcome issues, but when you’re a child (and indeed the parent of one too) the situation perhaps needs an even higher level of understanding. This is because children have a somewhat more concrete way of thinking when they are younger, and they haven’t had enough ups and down to know it might well pass. Plus, their peers may also not have had enough life experience to know how to best help. Children as they grow up, learn to grapple with big feelings, but it takes a while to do that (hey, even us adults aren’t pros). Think back to a tantruming toddler, who is just so completely overwhelmed by big feelings they just melt down.

I’ve discovered a great website in the UK with good animations to show children about mental health – both if they are feeling overwhelmed themselves and also for other children and adults to know what some useful things to do might be/what to look out for. It has children talking about their feelings and various ways they cope with them which ensures children don’t feel overly unusual – they can see themselves as ‘normal’, and that others have been there too, which is a great relief to them. It also helps their friends to understand how they feel and offers some practical suggestions on what to do – even exactly the sorts of things to say, how to listen properly, etc. It’s introduced by none other than the Duchess of Cambridge and you’ll find it here on You Tube.

I’ve come across a couple of other really useful resources in this space too…importantly NZ ones made with Kiwi families in mind. and are aptly named sites that have a bunch of cool content, much of it born from the Canterbury earthquakes when many families went from feeling pretty relaxed about life to suddenly fining themselves (understandably) in a constantly jumpy state.

Do go check them out. They are great sites. If you can’t, or you’re not keen for one more click, I’ll leave you with a handy to do list that might help if you know a young person feeling a bit wobbly.

  • Be a first-rate listener.
  • Show you care.
  • Validate their feelings.
  • Remind them that worrying is normal and can even be helpful.
  • If something worrying is coming up – encourage them to think of a similar challenge they overcame.
  • Teach perspective and humour.
  • Guide kids to solutions.
  • Offer physical reassurance.

And remember to model what you want to see – children learn from adult behaviours. If you can show your children you can bounce back from whatever might be personally worrying you, you’ll help them become more optimistic and resilient. Emerging out the other side of challenging times also teaches children that perseverance is key to getting through. That, and an attentive listening ear to help you get through to smoother sailing.


Written by: Jude Dobson

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