Research shows that one in ten young people experience a mental health issue at any one time – that’s around three in every classroom – and 50% of mental health issues are established by the age of 14*.
As a parent of three, the headlines and statistics surrounding young people’s mental health really concern me. It’s clear I’m not alone, Parentkind’s research shows three in five parents are worried about their child’s emotional well-being and mental health at school.
With these statistics in mind, watching your child navigate the challenges of today’s rapidly changing world – such as increasing academic pressures, new technologies and social media – it feels more important than ever to check in and talk about mental health.
When one of my children developed anxiety at the age of 10, I found that services were stretched, and at the time my child’s school was not equipped to offer the support needed. I decided that the next best thing would be to educate myself in mental health and gain more confidence in how to go about helping. The training I received gave me the tools and knowledge to support my children’s well-being (and my own), including spotting signs and having conversations I would have struggled with previously.
Starting a conversation with your child about their mental health doesn’t need to be difficult. To share what I have learnt, here are my five top tips on how to start a conversation:
1. Choose the right environment for the conversation
When it comes to starting a sensitive conversation with your child, it’s important to consider the time and place where the conversation is going to happen. Family life can often be busy, so make sure you have enough time to commit to the conversation. Choose a moment when you and your child don’t need to rush off. Also, finding somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed can really help – for example, ensuring the television and electronic devices are switched off shows you are ready to give your full attention.
2. Be open and non-confrontational
First, make it clear to your child that they’re not in trouble. Then take a seat, even if they are not sitting down – this can instantly make you seem less intimidating. When speaking, be empathetic, don’t interrupt, think about your body language and, most importantly, take what they’re saying seriously.
3. Ask helpful questions
Making your conversation age-appropriate is key, but a simple How are you? and How are things going at the moment? can be a helpful way to start things off. If your child is willing to open up, questions such as How long have you felt like this? How can I help you? What kind of support do you think might help you? and How are you feeling at the moment? will help you scope out their situation and get a better understanding of what your child's going through and how you can best support them.
4. Be genuine with them
Try and refrain from making judgements and aim to keep the conversation positive. Mental health can be affected by so many factors, from emotional pressures such as bullying or peer pressure, to exam and academic stresses, to life changes such as changing schools or family issues. It’s important to get on their wavelength – put yourself in their shoes and try to demonstrate that you hear and understand what they are saying and thinking. Hold back from giving advice such as ‘cheer up’ and ‘pull yourself together’ as it can this can seem dismissive.
5. Know what to do next
In the days, weeks, and months following your conversation, make sure you check in and reassure them that you remember what they said and that you are there for them. Let them know that there are other sources of support available as well, should they need it. This might be through school counselling services, your GP, online information, or even support groups in your local area.
Find out more: for World Mental Health Day on 10th October MHFA England has created the #HandsUp4HealthyMinds toolkit, offering a set of free resources to help parents, schools and teachers support young people with their mental health.
*Kessler (2005), Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders