While talking about mental health with your child might seem daunting, it is never too early to begin the conversation. Talking about emotions and ways to express them can normalize the topics, and help kids have a healthy understanding of how to assess and communicate what they are feeling or thinking.
Normalize Valuing Mental Health
One way to start these conversations is for you to express your emotions out loud in a calm, healthy way. Saying things like “I feel upset today because I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to” or “I feel sad right now because I had to cancel lunch with my friend” can give kids a template for how they might want to express things, while helping them understand that it’s perfectly fine to be emotional in the first place. The second step in this process is to also normalize coming up with rational solutions to these emotions. Vocalize how you remedied the emotion and situation- “I made a to-do list, and now I feel better because I know what I need to do tomorrow” or “I asked my friend if we could have lunch next week, and she said yes, so now I’m happy!”. This helps let children know that there are solutions to tough emotions, and that when you sit down to think things through there’s often a simple and rational way to work through things.
Be an Advocate for Your Child
Take time to ask your child to share about their day. Ask them what was good about their day as well as what was not so good. This can be a conversation on the car ride home, over dinner or as part of the bedtime routine. If there are situations or moments where you think your child may be feeling complicated emotions but has not expressed them to you, ask your child directly. They may not know how to start the conversation about their feelings, and a simple “Is there anything you want to tell me?” or “How are you feeling about that?” can go a long way. If they do not want to tell you, make sure they have other resources available- and offer them up without judgement. A school counselor, close friend, family member or mental health professional are all good people to turn to.
Create an Atmosphere of Trust, Acceptance and Communication
Provide your young child with tools to be able to sort and talk through their emotions to foster social-emotional development even at a young age. Similar to what Tierra Encantada has in our own classrooms, an emotions chart is a great way to talk about emotions with pictures of kids expressing different emotions. When your child is mad, sad or even happy, take time to let them point to the emotions they are feeling and ask them what makes them feel that way. Take it a step further by working through their emotions with them and helping them find solutions to the core issue or feeling. Always listen. Let them speak first and hold back judgement when your child confides in you – even when you are disappointed with what is being shared.
Use Books as a Resource
Help your child see how others work through their own emotions by incorporating books. Be sure to pick books relevant to their age group, touching on issues a child might encounter such as bullying or inappropriate touching. For young children, a few great options include My Body Sends a Signal: Helping Kids Recognize Emotions and Express Feelings by Natalia Maguire, The Boy with Big, Big Feelings by Britney Winn Lee (she also wrote The Girl with Big, Big Feelings!), Catching Thoughts by Bonnie Clark or Empathy is Your Superpower: A Book About Understanding the Feelings of Others by Cori Bussolari. For children experiencing entering school where bullying becomes more prevalent, Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry, Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes or The Juice Box Bully by Bob Sornson and Maria Dismondy. For teaching kids about inappropriate touch, options include Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept by Jayneen Sanders or I Said No! By Zach and Kimberly King.
Provide the Best Possible Environment
Make sure the environment where these conversations are being had is a safe, trusting one. Validate emotions before doing anything else- “thank you for telling me” can be reassuring for a child to hear. The best environment for conversations on emotions and mental health is one without distractions. Try and make sure any cell phones have been silenced, the television is turned off and that you are able to give your full attention to your child when they are speaking. This will reemphasize to them how important they are, and how much you care about how they feel and act.
At Tierra Encantada, one of our goals is to serve the whole child. We attend to physical health needs through organic meals and outdoor play and exercise. Sometimes mental health is put on the backburner, but we believe it should be dealt with in the same consistency as physical health, instead of only being brought up in hushed tones when necessary. In our centers, we foster a warm, welcoming environment with tools for and books about emotions so children feel comfortable expressing themselves and their feelings.
Additional resources on mental health: