How To Have Constructive Conversations With Kids About Mental Health

Perceive Machoko, Teacher at Gaborone International School

According to the World Health Organisation around one in five of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental disorder. A staggering statistic, but that’s not all, because “about half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14.’’- WHO. With so many of our young people experiencing mental health issues, in the time we have ended this sentence many other demographics might be facing the same.
Mental health and mental illness; the difference
Just the other day out of curiosity I asked a friend of mine what words come to mind when someone talks about ‘’mental health’’ and she said to me, “I immediately think troubled mind, issues, quarantine, Covid-19.” I loved her answer. Her response was/is what I suspect most people’s response would be in this pandemic time, but while I loved her answer, I had asked about ‘’mental health’’ and not ‘’mental health disorder.’’ Get it?
Mental health refers to cognitive, behavioural, and emotional well-being. It is all about how people think, feel, and behave. On the other hand, Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour. Examples of mental illness include anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The exact cause of most mental illnesses is unknown, a variety of factors such as, genetic, environmental and psychological factors are most common. A history of mental illness in a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, stressful life situations, such as a loved one’s death or a divorce, traumatic experiences, such as motor vehicle accidents, use of alcohol or recreational drugs, a childhood history of abuse or neglect, could increase the risk of mental illness. It is possible for an individual to suffer from more than one mental illness at a time.  Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
For example:
• Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
• withdrawal from friends and activities
• significant tiredness
• low energy or problems sleeping
• excessive anger
• hostility or violence.
Conversations with your children
Here’s where it gets good! Having the right conversations with your children opens the lines of communication, and help you keep an eye out for the warning signs of anxiety, depression and bullying. In this saturated, technology and social media driven area, the art of conversation has all but become rare. Small talk is all everyone seems to be good at these days, going deeper will likely result in conflict, therefore we steer clear. How, then do we work through a topic as difficult as mental health with our children, if it is something that most adults will not talk or learn about? Over the past years, I as an educator had many conversations with adolescents and I can confirm that one thing I have noticed is that some children suffer from an incredibly short attention span. Therefore, keeping their short attention span in mind, herewith a few tips to keep open and constructive conversations with your children going:
1. Be honest.
• Honesty builds trust, trust enables sharing. Sharing allows for conversation to flow. Where there is a flow of conversation there is constructive conversation. Be honest about who you are and your boundaries, for example, if you are not available to talk at any time of the day do not say things like “call me anytime.”
2. Pay attention.
•Have you ever felt the pain of sharing something important with someone who was either absent minded or nodding away as they replied to this message or picked up that call and so on? Chances are you ended up not saying all that you wanted. Well, it turns out it doesn’t matter whether you’re 5, 15 or 50, we all like to be listened to when speaking, especially about something as personal as our mental health! In order to have better conversations, try listening, really listening, better. Never ignore your child or anyone that is speaking to you. Paying attention to how they are experiencing things makes them feel safe and puts them into a trusted environment, helping them perhaps to work through the unknown and anxiety.
3. Be empathetic.
• Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Do not rush to judge and to say we used to do it like this. Times have changed. If they do correct you, reflect on what you are saying and try again. Seeing it from their point of view will put them at ease and will build a trust relationship that will allow them to always speak to you first.
4. Know what you’re talking about.
• There’s nothing more annoying than hearing someone go on and on about things they don’t know about, you ask them questions they get upset assuming you want to embarrass them. What I’m trying to say here is that mental health is a complex topic, no one has all the answers. However, do make it a point to educate yourself as much as possible on the subject, or inform the person that you are communicating to, that you are not be the correct person to assist them, but that you will support them in finding a person that will be able to assist them with their concerns. Always seek help from a professional on the topic of mental health.
5. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
• Take it a day at a time. It will take time before you get there. Sometimes children forget, they don’t take things as seriously as you might want them to, or sometimes they just won’t be interested in talking. Sometimes kids will be kids! However, be patient. If you have established a good foundation for communication with your children, they will inform you on their own time what is bothering them and you will be able to make an informed decision.
When it comes to constructive conversations about mental health, the aim is not to have one 2-hour long conversation annually but to create a safe space and an awareness in the child that they matter. To build confidence in them to communicate any fears, thoughts, or questions they might have. And to raise a generation that is educated and understands mental health and why it is important. “It is okay not to be okay”.