Catch Them Young: Tips on How to Talk to Kids About Mental Health
Parents and mental health experts Share their suggestions on how to talk to kids about mental health.
Talking about emotions and mental health with children can be difficult. More often, we put off having these conversations with kids, not wanting to expose them to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, especially, because they are young and impressionable. What we don’t realise is that keeping kids in the dark, exposing them to misconstrued information, via popular culture or sensational news reporting can be counterproductive.
Being open about mental health with our kids is, therefore, vital.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that between 1990 and 2017, one in seven Indians lived with poor mental health conditions ranging from depression, anxiety to severe conditions such as schizophrenia.
What’s more, the stacked stresses of the pandemic, a plunging economy and an ever-changing socio-political atmosphere in the community is further impacting people in different ways. Children too are vulnerable, as they try and process the uncertainty ahead.
Specifically, in India, a review of various existing studies suggests that over 65 percent of children surveyed felt anxious, scared and helpless during this period. The data is clear: We need to talk about mental health. Even if it is awkward.
I spoke to parents, mental health experts and practitioners, who make a case for talking to kids about mental health early in life, so that they are equipped to cope with curve balls that life throws up at them, in later years:
Don’t Underestimate Your Children. Instead Help Them ‘Safely Explore’ the World
Often parents assume the role of the expert in their relationship with the children and underestimate their intelligence and curiosity. By doing so, we continue to perpetuate the stigma around mental health, driving each other away from recognising emotions and feelings as an essential part of the wholesome human lives.
Mugdha Pradhan, Founder of Thrive Functional Nutritional Consulting and a mother to a 10-year-old daughter, underwent postpartum depression. Having spoken to her daughter about her struggles, challenges and healing, Mugdha shares, “We infantilise children a lot. We assume they might not be able to comprehend something, just because they are of certain age. They might lack the vocabulary that adults use, but they are conscious beings who perceive, feel, and understand when their parents are having a conflict or are undergoing stress. In my experience, I realised, my daughter grasped ideas and thoughts about the universe and purpose of life. She thinks very deeply and listens to me without judgement.”
Using Age-Appropriate Methods and Techniques Helps
Children's needs, concerns and knowledge vary according to their age. Young children need less information and fewer details because of their limited ability to understand. Preschool children focus primarily on things they can see. For example, they may have questions about a person who has an unusual physical appearance or who is behaving strangely. They would also be very aware of people who are crying and obviously upset, or who are yelling and angry. Teenagers are generally capable of handling much more information and appreciate an open dialogue which includes give and take of information.
Sahana Ahmed, a poet and novelist based in Gurgaon, is a mother to 9-year-old Reeham. When Reeham was a toddler, Ahmed would make different faces in front of her daughter to help her recognise different types of emotions. When asked about what prompted Ahmed to communicate with her daughter in this manner, Ahmed said, “I was a shy child and was never encouraged to talk about my feelings. I was taught to be silent and invisible. I did not want to follow that approach in my own parenting.”
Arundhati Kane, Counselling Psychologist and Curriculum Developer at Mind Mosaic, agrees with Ahmed’s approach. She explains,
“Start talking to kids, when they are preschoolers and then adapt different approaches, as kids grow up. Keep discussions around complex issues such as suicides, deaths, and grief, simple and direct. Be specific and provide real, honest, factual responses to any curious questions. Avoid using abstract language or fantasy ideas."Arundhati Kane, Counselling Psychologist, Mind Mosaic
She adds, “A parent can use a movie or drama or ask their young child to create a story. Usually, when we deploy this technique, kids express and inadvertently highlight their difficulties and issues. These can then serve as crucial cues for parental intervention.”
Fathers Are an Important Ally
Mothers and fathers play different roles in a child’s upbringing. However, research shows that children whose fathers are sensitive and supportive, tend to develop better social skills and language, regardless of socio-economic and cultural factors. Dr. Sapna Bangar, (Psychiatrist), Head, Mpower-The Centre, Mumbai, highlights how the role of father and quality of co-parenting that can have a powerful impact on child development.
“Traditionally, it was left to mother to have difficult conversations around emotions, sexuality, sexual preferences, etc., However, fathers have an important role to play. Parents need to show a united front to the kids, for them to feel safe and secure.”Dr Sapna Bangar, Head, Mpower-The Centre, Mumbai
Offer Solutions and Create a Safe Space
Anita Satyajit, a journalist, holistic life skills coach and a mother to a 12-year-old son shares, “I have struggled with anxiety since my school. I saw my son experience separation anxiety, at the start of his school year. So, I made it a point to explain that not everybody in the world behaves, feels, and thinks in the same way. I encourage him to look at things from a different perspective and understand that we all come with different capacities, skills, and different minds. Now he understands that this doesn’t mean anything is wrong or broken. It’s just different.”
Satyajit further suggests using children’s stories to simplify concepts of death, nervousness, worry, fear, anger. She also adds that spiritual practices such as prayers, meditation, breathing exercises, can help children understand life better, while equipping them to build emotional resilience and healthy coping skills. “My son sees me doing it regularly. So, now when he is unwell or feels stressed, he actively uses these techniques.”
“We connect with each other when we’re vulnerable. I think if parents can offer the same vulnerable space to their kids and be honest about who they are, then the kids also be honest about how they are feeling. That itself, is a big gift from us to our children.”Mugdha Pradhan, Founder of Thrive Functional Nutritional Consulting
Beyond giving quality time and a supportive environment at home, parents should create an open space, where the child is comfortable interacting and asking tough questions. Understanding non-verbal behaviors of children, can offer an alternative window to connect and communicate with them in effective ways.
(Deepika Gumaste is a freelancer writer and Mental Health Fellow at @SRFmentalhealth)
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