This year’s Children’s Mental Health Week is upon us, there has never been a better time to talk to our children and the inner workings of their brilliant brains.
Childhood should be a collection of magical moments, but sadly for many, childhood is tainted with mental health and wellbeing struggles. In fact, 1 in 6 UK children now has a diagnosable mental health problem. I’m always imagining a world in which we proactively encourage children to understand and manage their mental health, in the same way that society encourages management of physical health. But the reality is we are far from that dream situation.
Back in our pre Covid-19 world, many of the UK’s children were battling with big feelings and struggling to gain access to mental health support services due to extensive waiting lists. Those important issues and concerns haven’t gone away and we now have to mix in the impact of a global pandemic, of isolation and closed schools, of news headlines relaying mass deaths, and of a year’s worth of messages that having a hug, (or being close to another person), carries risk.
So, at a time that is far from simple, how can we weave mental health and wellbeing into a child’s every day? How can we support and educate those marvellous minds whilst being aware of the fact that their brains don’t fully develop until their late 20’s? How can we make the most of the fact that their brilliant brain is adaptable, and able to rewrite itself time and time again, meaning that they can continue to learn?
Well, one way to start is to encourage self-expression.
Allowing space for self expression builds confidence, celebrates individualism and importantly, allows for communication in a way that enables the child to call the shots. Communication comes in all shapes and sizes. Some may process difficult feelings through art, while others may act out scenario. Some may have explosive outbursts and need support or encouragement to channel that energy though a healthy outlet. Meanwhile, others may retreat, or even regress.
All children are different, but if we can support little ones to express themselves positively, it provides them with the chance to build connections to others and importantly, to befriend themselves all the more.
Ways to encourage self-expression
Play. Children learn through play, but importantly, they also try on different hats, act out characters and explore feelings and relationships. So, whether it’s role play or building blocks, encourage play and follow the child’s lead, resisting the temptation to direct what’s happening.
Create. That doesn’t mean be an artist, it literally means create. And it can be anything. A cake, a picture, a pattern made from leaves and flowers; it doesn’t matter. Take a step back and let the child create in a way that works for them, holding a space that makes it ok to colour out of the lines, or to do things differently. And don’t just ‘create’ once, allow regular time for creative activities, strengthening that area of the brain.
Write. Not in school style, but in a free flowing, unconsidered way. Perhaps pick a special book with the child that can be a diary or journal, a space to put pen to paper for doodling, telling stories and writing down thoughts. If you’d rather have something more structured, then there are plenty of journals out there that support children with prompts and feelings check-ins.
Get outside. I know, it’s the middle of winter, but prepare hot chocolate for the arrival home, wrap up and go outside. Run, jump in puddles, play eye spy or make shapes from the clouds. Nature has a beautiful way of grounding, resetting our system and helping us to live in the present moment, sparking creativity and relieving stress.
Move. Dance, stretch, do PE with Joe, or kick a ball around. Movement allows for physical expression, and in turn, the release of feelings. So, whether it’s fast and dramatic, or slow and thoughtful, every child is unique and will physically express in different ways.
Be yourself (and show you’re human). As a parent or caregiver, role model individuality. Make it ok to show emotion, to have an outlet and be relatable. Children learn so much through watching and listening. Even when we don’t think there is anything for those little sponges to note, they are taking it all in. And remember, it’s ok, even beneficial, to make mistakes. It's your response to the mistakes that is crucial, so be self-aware.
Educate on feelings. Often children want to share how they are feeling but they don’t know the right words to use, or how best to express themselves. Use emotion toys, flash cards, books or films. Be inventive and take the cues from the child. You could relate to their favourite fictional characters, and talk about situations and relationships. There are so many ways to introduce feelings - don't be afraid to experiment and find out what resonates with your child.
Accept. Lastly, you are a grown-up human with your own thought process, expectations and blueprint for life. But, when encouraging self-expression, try and push that aside. Let them take the lead. Let them dictate. Accept their differences and their way of doing things. It can be a challenge but you’ll build their confidence while subconsciously reiterating the message that being themselves is more than ok. In fact, it's brilliant!