Mental Health & Kids
It’s never too soon to start talking and to share feelings.
“We’ve always been a close family…but there was one conversation we never had — that is on mental health and suicide.” Luke Richardson, Ottawa Senators Assistant Coach. [His daughter, 14-year old Daron, committed suicide last November.]
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadian youth between the ages of 15 and 24. Fair to say, happy people don’t generally wake up one morning and decide to end it all. Like physical sickness (a cold or flu), mental illness can start out with mild symptoms – worry, night terrors, over-sensitivity to people or situations – that progress to something more serious, like debilitating anxiety or depression. Disorders like ADHD or anorexia are also classified as mental illnesses and can be mild or severe depending on the individual.
At the root
Many families acknowledge their one ‘crazy relative’ – a distant aunt or cousin – whose eccentric behaviour is occasionally the cause of mild embarrassment. What we’re less likely to engage in are dinner table discussions about mental health issues like anxiety, depression or eating disorders. More importantly, our 21st century always-on, hectic lifestyles contribute to the very roots of emotional illness – fragmentation, isolation and distraction – which can take hold at an early age and blossom into a real crisis by adolescence. As with any other illness, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Taking the time to share how we feel and teach our kids to do the same may be the best investment in their wellbeing we ever make.
The causes of mental illness fall into three categories: genetic (the tendencies we’re born with); environmental, including head injury, poor nutrition or exposure to toxins; and social, which carry the greatest impact by far, particularly on children’s mental health. These risk factors include: severe parental discord and/or divorce; death of a family member or close friend; abuse, neglect or exposure to violence; economic hardship; a parent’s mental illness, etc.
While our ability to control these influences varies, in reality, life will throw us curve balls – personal challenges, difficulties or even tragedies – that can threaten our emotional stability at any given time. Add to this a culture that worships mind-over-matter toughness – whether in science, business or competitive sports – while characterizing emotional vulnerability as weakness, and we have a recipe for personal crisis.
What to look for
As parents, the first place to look for any signs of emotional strength or weakness is within ourselves: a bit of gentle self-reflection will go a long way to helping us develop emotional resiliency in our children. We might ask, “Do I tend to intellectualize issues or avoid talking about feelings? Do I sometimes overreact to situations; am I quick to anger or feel disappointed?”
Beyond our own sense of ennui, frustration or day-to-day stress, consider how children might feel about their schoolwork, friends, sports performance, social situations, or any new experience. Chances are, if there is some distress lurking below the surface, they don’t really understand it or know what to do about it.
Like an adult, a child’s inner life will show up in their outer world; undesirable or self-destructive behavior is a symptom of the inability to manage thoughts and feelings. Their enjoyment of school, ability to make or keep friends, moodiness at home, capacity to focus, or how well they adjust to new situations can all be used as measures of their emotional wellness. An observant parent may notice significant changes in typical eating, sleeping or socializing patterns that can send up a red flag.
Being willing to step into our own pool of feelings and modeling that readiness is the first step to creating an environment of mental health at home. Acknowledging rather than devaluing a child’s concerns sends the message that feelings – though complex, confusing and sometimes awkward – are an important and normal part of being human.
What you can do
Mental health is about finding balance in all elements of our lives. Judging emotions as good (joy) or bad (anger), drives us to push them away. Rather than choosing which feelings are tolerable while ‘stuffing’ or ignoring those that are not, it may be useful to gain some tools to help manage those emotions.
Emotional literacy means having the language to express one’s feelings beyond mad, sad and glad. Words like: frustrated when unable to learn something new; jealous of a friend who has something we covet; nervous about an upcoming event, can be introduced to children at a young age through storytelling or examples from daily life.
Older children can be encouraged to engage in their own self-reflection so they can use their sophisticated ‘feelings vocabulary’ to express their own needs in appropriate ways. Asking them questions such as, “How do you feel about that?” or “Does that work for you?” supports their own inner dialogue; valuing their statements about what they need – time to themselves or with a friend or family member – helps them further develop that self-awareness and feel empowered to outwardly express it in constructive ways.
There may be times when we are called upon to act as our child’s advocate: beware of adults who belittle or blame children for their feelings. Whether at school, home or play, all emotions are valid and deserve to be supported.
As our children get older, their increased independence and/or rejection of our input may send the message that they no longer need us. Don’t believe it for a minute. Though their emotional world is rapidly evolving, they need us more than ever: to offer reflections on new situations; help gain perspective on relationships; boost their waning self-confidence by pointing out the skills they’ve gained; or to simply act as a sounding board for their increasingly complex thoughts and feelings. Showing compassion when our kids misstep or fail is a reminder to them to cut themselves the slack they’ll need to problem solve in the future.
To help create that essential balance in your family’s lives, consider these tips:
support your physical wellness as part of mental health – access local sources of fresh produce, proteins and whole grains, enjoy regular exercise in your community, get adequate rest
nurture relationships to reduce isolation – with family, friends, co-workers, neighboursdeal with emotional challenges openly and proactively when they arise,
- express yourself – share with a close friend or family member
- meet like-minded folks – find community or faith groups with common concerns
- ask for professional help – your child’s school has access to counselors; go to your local social service agency or family doctor for a referral
During the early years, a parent is typically the go-to person when children are distraught. Maintaining an open-door policy means that when your child or teen is ready to talk, you’ll be there to listen. As they mature, children may develop relationships with another family member, teacher, coach or family friend who can support them in times of trouble. That sympathetic ear can make all the difference in the world to a child in desperate emotional need.
Kinark Child and Family Services
The Mental Health Helpline
The Canadian Mental Health Association
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health