By Gabby Cushman
Teaching young ones to have a healthy relationship with their emotions as they grow
As we work to break down the stigma surrounding mental health discussions, we create a safer world for our children to express their mental well-being. When kids are taught at a young age that it’s okay to be honest and vulnerable about all of their feelings, even those perceived as “negative” emotions, they grow up to have strong emotional intelligence and self-awareness. It also prevents them from learning to bottle up their emotions, often leading to unhealthy reactions when they can no longer contain those feelings. You may be wondering what you can do at home or in the classroom to help encourage that openness about mental health for kids. Here are five ways to do just that!
#1- Be open and honest about your own feelings
Children often learn by observation. If they see you expressing your emotions honestly, such as telling them when you’re feeling tired or sad instead of hiding it, they’ll learn that it’s okay for them to talk about their feelings in the same way. Even as adults, we often feel more comfortable expressing the stress, sadness, fear, or anger we may feel if someone else first articulates that same emotion to us. So it makes sense kids would feel the same way! Being open with them will also build a solid trust between you and your little ones.
#2- Try journaling together
Journaling is a staple coping mechanism and self-care exercise in mental health spaces. It’s a great way to get pesky negative thoughts out of your head and pin down what emotions you’re working through now. This activity is excellent for children learning to express their mental health. Journaling can be approached in many different ways, from daily prompts to just writing when you’re experiencing a strong emotional reaction. Work with your little ones to figure out what approach is best for them, and try journaling along with them, so it feels like an activity you’re doing together. Lastly, it’s essential to give children the choice of whether they want to share what they wrote or not. This gives them the agency to share once they feel comfortable and the safety to write as genuinely as they want to.
#3- Do daily mental health check-ins
If you teach children to check in with their emotions every day, they’ll slowly get better at recognizing more complex feelings and tracing them back to specific experiences or reasons they could feel that way. This could be as simple as asking them, “How are you feeling?” daily or dedicating time at the end of the day to a sharing activity. One example activity is “Rose, Bud, Thorn”- rose represents the best part of your day, thorn represents the worst part of your day, and bud represents something you’re looking forward to. Your family or class could do “Rose, Bud, Thorn” to wrap up the day and give everyone a chance to share how their days went. Either way, checking in on your little ones’ mental health regularly shows them that you care and that it’s important to always recognize their feelings even when they don’t feel significant.
#4- Teach them about the dimensions of wellness
Research has identified eight dimensions of wellness in our lives. These are:
- Social wellness: Having healthy relationships with family, friends, and the local community.
- Emotional wellness: The ability to express feelings and cope with life’s stressors.
- Spiritual wellness: A broad area of wellness that represents our personal beliefs, values, and idea of purpose. This can include religion or individual practices if you’re not religious.
- Intellectual wellness: Keeping our brains active through personal interests, education, and conversation.
- Physical wellness: Maintaining good physical health through nutrition, physical activity, and sleep.
- Environmental wellness: Occupying positive/safe work and home environments, as well as having access to clean air, food, and water.
- Financial wellness: Establishing financial security through stable income, reducing debt, and maintaining savings.
- Occupational wellness: Feeling accomplished in one’s career path, maintaining a healthy work/life balance, and forging positive work relationships.
Teaching children about these eight dimensions of wellness can help them recognize what part of their lives may be out of balance and causing stress, sadness, or anger. For example, if a kid struggles to make friends, they may feel lonely and sad most of the time. You can help them identify that need for social connection and develop strategies to improve their social wellness (i.e., suggest getting involved in an after-school activity to meet different people). There may be dimensions that seem like they don’t apply to children’s lives, such as occupational and financial wellness. However, they can affect kids as well as adults. A child’s financial wellness will depend on their family’s financial wellness, and their occupational wellness usually involves their success in school since being a student is their “job.” Make sure you’re not counting out any of these dimensions of wellness when discussing them with your little ones.
#5- For young ones really struggling, consider therapy
Some children struggle with their mental health more than others. For children ages 3-17, 9.8% are diagnosed with ADHD, 9.4% are diagnosed with anxiety, and 4.4% are diagnosed with depression. If you think your child is beginning to exhibit signs of a mental health condition, it’s vital to seek out diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible so they can access the resources they need to cope healthily with their mental health troubles. Talk therapy is often a part of treatment plans for most mental health conditions. If a professional suggests therapy could be helpful for your little one, go over the idea with them and see if they’re open to it. Personally, I started therapy for my anxiety when I was 17 and have stuck with it for the past six years. I feel like I could have benefitted from starting therapy even earlier in retrospect since my anxiety was pretty severe when I was a child. Unfortunately, therapy has a significant stigma surrounding it when it’s a common way of taking care of your mental health at any age. Do your part in fighting this stigma by considering therapy for your children if they would benefit from it.
These are just five examples of ways you can encourage kids to have an open dialogue about their mental health. Practicing emotionally honest conversations at a young age will help them grow into adults who can process their thoughts and feelings in healthy ways. It will also encourage them to be supportive when their peers express their emotions transparently.
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