Expert advice on the different ways you can be there for your kids’ emotional wellbeing.
By Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg
Recent statistics show that 1 in 5 young people in Britain aged 16-24 experience anxiety or depression. So what can we do to support young people’s mental health at home, and promote a positive environment in which they can thrive?
While many parents might know that their child is suffering, they might not know how they can help. Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, child and adolescent psychiatrist based at Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre, shares the everyday things you can do to help your kids’ develop robust mental health:
1.Encourage conversation with your kids
Ideally these should be a series of discussions that happen regularly and from a young age. At a young age, I would start by helping young people name the emotions they feel. For example, if they are crying because they are sad, say ‘I understand you are crying because you are sad’. If they are stamping their foot, say ‘I understand you are doing that because you are angry’.
Even at a young age, you can go on to say, ‘It’s normal to feel sad sometimes, let’s talk about why you feel sad’ or ‘let’s see if we can change how you feel to feeling happy by playing with your toys’. These small acts, as a parent, teach your child to really understand their emotions; it tells them it is okay and normal to feel emotions and to talk about them, and importantly it teaches them that you can change your emotions by what you do.
Ideally discussions about mental health and emotions should happen regularly and from a young age.
As children get older, I would ensure you talk to them about your day, events that have happened and how you felt about them or coped with them. Think about role modelling. If you are annoyed with your boss, don’t come in, shout at your family and sit on the couch knocking back a bottle of wine; that shows them unhealthy ways to cope when stressed. Come in and talk about how stressed and annoyed you felt and say, ‘I feel so much better for talking about how I feel and now I’m going to have a quick run to help myself feel even better.’ They will then learn healthy ways to cope from you.
When you learn a fact about mental health, or hear someone’s story who has struggled and recovered, share that information with your teenage children so that they know how common mental health issues are, it is fine to talk about them and that they are treatable.
- Be present
Over the years, if your child talks to you about their thoughts and feelings, really listen. Put your phone down, make eye contact, and focus just on them. React calmly. Try to validate how they feel with comments such as ‘I can understand why you felt like that’.
If your child talks to you about their thoughts and feelings, really listen.
Teach them you know they are competent to cope by saying ‘I know you will come through this as I remember the time when you were little when you showed me how you could cope with a similar situation such as when, for example, you felt anxious leaving me to start a new school but you let go of my hand walked in and said hello.’
This gives them evidence they are competent, you will listen, you do understand and it will help them learn they can talk to you.
- Look after yourself
I would suggest parents keep themselves informed about mental health so they know signs to look for and where to access help if needed.
If the parent has any difficulties themselves, they should seek help for themselves and prioritise it, as to look after a young person, you have to look after yourself.
- Stay calm to promote security
I often talk to young people, when calm, about the brain almost having different ‘mind states’ including an emotional mind state and a rational mind state. When they are in the emotional mind state, they cannot listen, they cannot see other’s view points and they should not make any decisions.
It is important to stay calm yourself when a young person is in an emotional state.
I explain to them if they are in an emotional mind state, I am happy to support them, distract them or give them space but I will not talk things through with them as they are unlikely to listen. I check with them when they are calm, how they would like me to support them in an emotional mind state going forward, so they know what to expect and so they get a reaction from me that is helpful to them.
It is important to stay calm yourself when a young person is in an emotional state as it helps them feel safe and secure. When they are in the rational, calm mind state, it is a better time to talk. If they understand this, they know why you might walk away when they are in an extreme of emotion, they understand their mind state better and gradually learn ways to calm more quickly.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If a young person is regularly or persistently appearing to be in an emotional state that seems to be out of the normal range and it has gone on longer than a couple of weeks, and is interfering with the young person’s level of functioning, or the functioning of the family, I would suggest having a discussion with a professional.
Mental health support
If you think you might be suffering from depression your first port of call should be your GP. For additional support, try one of the following resources:
- Depression UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from depression.
- Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
- The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
- Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
- CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.