Children’s Mental Health – Let’s Talk

five children sitting on bench front of trees

Mental health amongst children

In the past few years, the topic of mental health has been more and more widely discussed.  We talk about it on social media, on TV, in films, through music, we’ve even started to talk about it in workplaces and in universities.  But what about our children?  When are we going to start talking to them about mental health?

Throughout my life, I’ve often heard adults dismiss the obvious mental health issues of children and teenagers as nothing that serious for no other reason than they are young.  This is a common trope that I am sure you have heard many times as well and I think, or I hope, that we can all agree that it is complete rubbish.  While children and teenagers have brains that are not fully developed, they are still capable of struggling with genuine and often scary mental health issues.  Sweeping them under the rug based on age is, at best, dangerous.

I do understand the difficulties in accepting that children may be depressed, may have thoughts of harming themselves, or may even experience suicidal ideations.  However, difficult subjects should not be ignored simply because they are difficult.  I know that we like to ‘let kids be kids’ and shelter and protect them from the bad things in the world and we absolutely should try our best to do that but sometimes we can’t.  sometimes the bad things get through our filtering no matter how careful we are and how are children supposed to deal with those things when we haven’t prepared them for any negative emotions beyond feeling sad sometimes?

Let’s start to talk, now!

There are, unfortunately, children in my life who have been through more than children their age should.  They have been exposed to difficult subjects that we would hope no one would have to deal with until they are an adult but, as we all know, life can and often is cruel.  Luckily, these particular children are surrounded by adults who do not shy away from the difficult discussion and do not disregard the things their children say or express based on their young age.  As a result, these children are well supported and well equipped to navigate the difficult and scary emotions they may feel.

It did get me thinking though, why do we shy away from talking to our kids about serious subjects?  When the word suicide cropped up on television with children, my initial reaction was to tense up and anticipate a question that I didn’t know how to answer.  I knew the topic was prevalent in certain situations the kids were aware of and suddenly realised that any questions they asked should be answered honestly.  When I considered a change of subject when questions were asked, I realised that I’d be doing them a huge disservice and potentially leaving them very confused about dangerous feelings. 

Normalising the conversation

We talk to children about difficult or ‘adult’ topics all the time in age-appropriate ways, why should mental health and the heavy subjects that involves be any different?  They don’t need to know all the gory details; they don’t need to know the ins and outs of what goes on when severe mental illness is involved but they should know that it exists.  They should know the basic symptoms of common mental health issues; we should be normalising open and honest communication with our children about mental health and emotions.  They may be young; they may not be able to grasp the intricacies, but they are more than capable of grasping the basics. 

At the end of the day, we teach our children the symptoms of colds, of fevers, of stomach upsets.  Why don’t we do the same thing with mental illnesses?  Why do we leave our children to navigate scary, difficult feelings all alone when we know full well that mental illness can be lonely enough at the best of times?  It’s time we stepped up and started including our children in conversations about mental health at an age-appropriate level and shape a better informed, more sympathetic, more aware generation of adults.

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