It may have escaped your notice that in this time of COVID-19 dominated news that it is Children's Mental Health week and the subject for this year is Expressing Yourself. Finding ways to express your thoughts and feelings. I'll come back to that later.
I have a particular perspective on this subject because I am a parent, I am a grandparent, I have been a school governor and, of course, I work in the area of mental health. In a nutshell, here is my perspective, if you want the best way to influence children's mental health... work with parents and teachers. If we invest in the mental health of parents and teachers they will influence the next generation and the next generation and so on.
The reality is that we have a current generation of children that also need our attention and they will become the parents and the teachers of tomorrow but the long term view and biggest impact will be by working with parents. Why? In my professional and personal opinion parents and teachers are the biggest impactors and influencers of children. To support a child's mental health in isolation will be to ignore that they may be living in an environment that, without intent, is causing a lot of the mental health challenges.
How do parents and teachers have such an impact? It starts with our role models. Children learn through role modelling more than anything else and their strongest role models are their parents and their teachers.
Key mental/emotional health issues that parents can role model
How highly we value ourselves brings together many emotional health issues that many of us can carry around with us.
Our ability to take things personally and be very sensitive over certain subjects can, if we pay attention to it, reveal the negative beliefs that we have developed about ourselves buried deep down. The trouble is that we reveal them to ourselves and others in our emotional reactions and these can impact our children.
Parents whose relationships are characterised by conflict, drama and needy behaviour are role modelling these behaviors for their children. Glued to your social media instead of interacting with your children? More concerned about likes than genuine unconditional love? This will impact your ability to role model healthy self respect, self validation and self value to your children.
Did you know that stress is contagious?
A study at the University of Hawaii found that stress could spread as quickly around an office environment as a cold. They studied emotions conveyed by facial expressions and how this could spread from one person to another. What's your stressy face? How often do your kids see it?
Furthermore another study found that other people's cortisol levels rose by as much as 26% when in the presence of another stressed person.
The point being, if your relationship with stress is not healthy your children will pick up on it.
Role modeling works and it works both ways.
If the role models that your children see in school are stressed then children will pick up on it. If the role models at home and in school have a healthy relationship with stress children will pick up on it.
Talking about feelings
If there is one thing that I would pay attention to more than anything it is this and it chimes exactly with this year's theme which is Expressing Yourself. If we can teach children that feeling the whole range of feelings and being able to express those in a safe and healthy way is good, we will go a long way towards helping them understand themselves better and develop their resilience. It is the emotionally strongest that can work with their own vulnerability.
On the first workshop I ever ran we talked about feelings. We talked about a core set of feelings that go deep. Those we named were happy, sad, fear, hurt, shame and anger. We talked about the need for us to be able to understand and allow those feelings to be there and to express them in a healthy way.
In the workshop was a quiet, thoughtful man from Northern Ireland. He had twin 6 year old boys. When he went back to his home in Ireland after the workshop, he took some cardboard and he made a wheel with six segments and in each one he wrote a feeling. He then made an arrow and pinned it in the middle. He had made a feelings wheel.
Every night when he put the boys to bed he asked them to point to a feeling they had experienced that day and then asked them to talk about it.
By doing this he gave his sons permission to feel and he role modelled listening and accepting feelings for what they are. Feelings, just feelings. They visit us and they go away. Sometimes they stay longer, sometimes they are fleeting. By accepting them and allowing them the space they need we develop a healthy relationship with them. If we try to deny them and push them away they will want more space and more energy until we become overwhelmed.
In my experience children are actually better at this then their parents and we just need to help them feel safe to talk about them.
If you are the parent of teenagers and you are finding it difficult to talk to them about anything let alone feelings, go for a walk. I have the most productive talks with my children walking. The energy goes in front of us, is not directed at either of us and we walk side by side just talking.
There are many other areas of our emotional health that children can pick up through the way we behave. But the areas outlined above, in my opinion, are the big ones.
Authenticity - you can't just pretend to be calm. Children may not name it as inauthentic or incongruent but they sense something is not right and they don't believe it. Don't just put an act on - actually act it !!
Essentially, if you take your mental and emotional health seriously and take good care of yourself your children will follow. If you don't... to generalise, kids will turn out remarkably like you or the exact opposite - my experience is that they are more likely to turn out like a consistent positive role model. If we as a society invest in the mental health of our teachers then we will truly be valuing them and our children's education.