How to talk to young people about mental health

  Wednesday 11th August, 2021

Good mental health is important for healthy development, strong relationships and resilience.
While it can be difficult to talk to young people about mental health, being open about the subject can help them understand their emotions and teach them how to look after themselves mentally as well as physically.
It's not only adults who struggle with these conversations either - young people can find it difficult to talk about their feelings and often worry about upsetting their parents. To mark International Youth Day today (12 August), we've put together some tips on making mental health part of the conversation with the young people in your life.

Why talk to young people about mental health?

Learning about mental health is just as important as learning about physical health.
Young people learn to manage their emotions from their experiences with adults. Calmly and confidently opening up conversations can encourage young people to understand that mental health is something we all have and that we can ask for help when we need it. Helping young people manage emotions such as anger, uncertainty or helplessness, and becoming part of their ongoing support system, will make them feel safe.

A few words on emotions -

Emotional development is a complex process that begins in infancy and continues into adulthood.
How we interpret and respond to our feelings has a significant impact on our behaviour, choices, and how well we cope with and enjoy life. Managing emotions doesn't mean having fewer emotions – it means recognising how different emotions make you behave and finding ways to manage these feelings in a healthy way.

Beyond Blue and Raising Children have great tips on how to help children learn to manage their emotions, including by:

• expressing their feelings creatively through drawing or storytelling
• encouraging them to take deep breaths or slow their breathing down by blowing bubbles or pretending to blow out candles
• listening to music that calms them down
• doing exercise or spending time outside to release 'feel-good hormones.

Over time you'll figure out what works best for your young person. As kids grow and are exposed to different situations, their emotional lives also become more complex. Developing skills for managing a wide range of emotions is important for their emotional wellbeing.

Starting the conversation -

In the same way you might talk to young people about eating vegetables to keep their body healthy and strong, you can share ways to be mentally healthy. As young people learn about their body and physical illnesses, you can explain that sometimes people also become unwell in a way that affects how they feel emotionally. Let them know it's common for people to experience an illness like depression or anxiety, just like it's common to get a cold or stomach bug, and that doctors can help these people feel better. Think about the words you use to describe someone who might be mentally ill or behaving in an unexpected way. Try to avoid words like 'crazy', 'psycho' or 'nutter'.
This kind of negative language can hurt people with mental illness and make mental health problems seem embarrassing or wrong, which could discourage young people from getting help if they need it.

Top tips for talking -

It can be tricky to find the right time to talk. One way to kick-start a conversation is by taking 30 minutes to do an activity you both enjoy - such as drawing or colouring in, playing a tech-free game, going for a drive or kicking the ball around outside. This can create a relaxed space where they can open up.

Here are some questions you could ask to get a general conversation started:

• What was the best bit of your day?
• What was the worst bit of your day?
• What did you do today that made you proud?
• How are you feeling?
• What would you like to talk about?

If you know your child is having a hard time, you could ask gentle questions like:

• I've been noticing that you are sad/distant/angry. Can we talk about what's been bothering you?
• You haven't been acting like yourself lately. Do you want to talk about what's going on?
• Is there anything you need from me? Space, time to talk, time to do something fun?
• What was the biggest problem you had today? What helped?

Equally as important is how you are feeling - be aware of your own stress and negative emotions and choose a time when you can really focus. Conversation started. What next?
When your young person opens up and shares their feelings, you want the conversation to continue and end in a healthy way.

• Ask open-ended questions to keep them talking.
• Acknowledge their feelings and try not to minimise how they're feeling.
• Keep your reactions in check – if you respond in a judgmental, shocked or angry way, they'll be less likely to come to you in the future.
• Don't jump in immediately and give advice – let them do the talking.
• Remind your young person they're not alone – let them know you're there to help.
• If you're not sure what to say, it can help to do a little research. The more you know, the better equipped you'll be. Don't suggest they just 'cheer up' or 'pull themselves together'.
• Help your young person improve their confidence by acknowledging and building on the things they do well.

What if they don't want to talk?
It may be that your young person doesn't want to talk, can't find the words or is trying to assert their independence. Reassure them that they can talk to you at any time. Try saying things like:

• You can always talk to me. I'm here for you.
• If you want to talk to someone else instead, that's ok too.
• If you talk to me about what is worrying you, I can do my best to help.
• Even if I don't understand what you're going through, I want to and will try to put myself in your shoes.
• We're going to get through this together.

You could also see if other forms of communication, like writing a letter or texting, would make it easier for your child to let you know what's going on.

If your child tells you they're struggling -

If a young person is experiencing anxiety or depression, it will probably affect the way they think about things. They'll be more likely to approach situations negatively, believing nothing much can change.Being anxious and worried can also get in the way of finding solutions.

If your child tells you they're struggling -

• Make sure they feel seen and heard - validate their feelings and let them know that it's ok to not be ok.
• Thank them for sharing what's going on and be encouraging about the way they've opened up.
• Let them know that you love them, that you're there for them, that support is available and that you can work through the options together.
• Ask them if there's anything you could do that they would find particularly helpful.
• Spend time together thinking about what's making them feel this way. It could be something at home or school, a relationship with a friend or family member or something else.
• Remind them that this feeling is temporary. Reassure them that things can change and they can feel better.

If you think your young person needs professional support, speaking to their GP about what's going on is a good first step.

Where to go for health advice and information for young people -

Life can throw all sorts of stuff at us, and it's ok to not have all the answers.
Beyond Blue and Raising Children all have tips on how to talk to young people about mental health.

Beyond Blue:
Raising Children:

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