When I was five we moved to a new area - I was about to start school and absolutely everything was new. At nine my heart broke for the first time as my beloved pet Westie Bonnie died. At 13 my Grandad left this world after a short run-in with cancer and I was devastated. At 14 I fell out with a friend and became full of self-loathing. By 15 I was 'in-love' and trying to work out what being in a relationship actually meant. At 16, exams were tough and expectations high - I was overwhelmed. In my late teens my parents separated - I was sad and confused. It's fair to say that by the time I reached 'adulthood' I'd had experiences that would shape me forever - just like I'm sure you did too.
Looking back now, I see those life events helped me. Yes, I had a period of disordered eating and obsessive exercise. I had days where my tears felt like they fell for hours. Yes, I disliked myself for a while and was horrible to my nearest and dearest - (sorry Mum, Dad and little Sis), and yes, I still grieve for my beloved Grandad.
But what's important is that with support and love I discovered my own coping mechanisms so that now, when things don't go to plan or become a challenge, I am better equipped to bounce back. I am able to accept storms of feelings but know that they will change and not last forever. I have my very own toolbox of tools for when life happens around me and, I firmly believe that those situations, plus the many more since, have brought me to where I am today - passionate about young people's mental health.
There is so much within life that we cannot control, and us humans...well, we are incredibly vulnerable. As we sit here in the present, as rational adults, that lack of control is a scary fact, so it's easy to see how terrifying life can be for young people whose brains are not yet adult, whose hormones are racing and who live in a society of chatter, scrutiny, expectation, and 24 hour intrusion.
The previous few years have added an extra complexity. We all know pandemic life hasn't been easy and the mental health landscape for children around the UK isn't a pretty picture. There has been no better time to continue striving forward to open up conversations around wellbeing, mental health and emotions. As a society we move our bodies in order to look after our hearts and we openly chat about how we got on at the gym, hockey, swimming or football, yet we fail to assess whether or not our mind is feeling mentally fit. This scenario has to change. Wellbeing and mental health needs to be an integral part of the everyday - in fact it should be our foundation.
1 in 6 children in the UK now have a diagnosable mental health disorder and that figure is on the increase.
50% of those with lifetime mental health problems first experience symptoms by the age of 14.
409,347 under-18s were referred to the NHS in England for specialist care for issues such as suicidal thoughts and self harm between April and October 2021- that's a huge increase of 77%.
(Sources, Place2Be and BBC)
So, how can we support children at an everyday level to normalise mental health and wellbeing, to build their resilience and to help them uncover their own toolkit?
Well, it doesn't have to be scary and nor does it have to be all consuming. Why not try some of these ideas so that conversations about mental health exist within your environment and children know that it's ok to feel.
Start the day with a family feelings check in. This doesn't have to be long, but take a couple of minutes with those around you to share a word or 2 about their current mood. Happy, sad, annoyed, angry...there's no correct answer, the important part is that it's being verbalised. If you are then all together later on in the day, do an evening check-in and notice if anyone's mood has shifted. This is a reminder that 'mood' is flexible and they also visit everyone, in all shapes and sizes.
If you can, try and eat together once a day. Perhaps light a candle and make it a family ritual. Sharing food (especially when there's soft lighting), can support the mind and body to relax and feel connected to others.
Share your own thoughts feelings and emotions in an age appropriate way. Children often see 'grown ups' as being invincible and yet, that's not a realistic view as we are all human. If you make a mistake, say sorry and then reflect on it. If you react in a way to something and wish you'd handled it differently then say that. If you had a rough day, then be open about that. This supports children to understand that we are all human with thoughts and feelings and that actually emotions are ok, no matter what age people are.
Try not to rush in and 'rescue' children from their own feelings, although I know this one can be seriously hard. If they are crying, let them cry. If they are finding something tough to do then allow them to see if they can work it out. Of course, be alongside them and ready with help if you are asked, but give them time and space to fully experience their feelings. Validate them.
Thoughts, feelings and actions are all separate entities. For example, your child may think that they really dislike their teacher, and this may cause them to feel anger. They do however usually draw the line at turning those thoughts and feelings into an action; they wouldn't usually punch their teacher. So with awareness and a bit of training we, as people, can separate our thoughts, feelings and actions. It's important that children know that as it helps them to feel more in control.
Encourage children to think about the basics for their toolkit. Who is their go-to person? What activities support them to feel calm? Do they have a favourite food, game or scent? Drawing attention to things and activities that support regulation is a valuable lesson.
It sounds like a cliche, and I know you've heard it before, but when big feelings kick in our breath really is out best friend. Deep, slow breaths in, all the way down to the tummy tells the brain that we are safe. It might seem strange but breathing into our tummy really is a wonderful tool.
Lastly consider introducing 'Listening time' A time in the week or during the day when you sit together and talk, but more importantly, you, as the grown up actively listen. If talking doesn't come naturally then perhaps write down prompts such as School, Friendships, Exams, Something you're proud of, Something you need help with and Hopes and dreams. Roll a dice and see where it lands or close your eyes and take a gamble. The magic is in the listening - just watch and see what happens.