When they were growing up, many of today’s adults likely didn’t always speak openly about their mental health – especially not with their parents.
But today, more parents and caregivers are realizing the importance of staying in tune with their children’s emotions – especially since the COVID-19 pandemic caused much disruption to lives and routines.
Recent polls found that 84% of parents believe that mental health challenges in children have increased in recent years, and 89% of parents believe their children’s mental health is more important than academic achievements.
One of the most effective ways to support children’s mental health is simply by having conversations with them. But starting those conversations and keeping them going is not always easy. So, The On Our Sleeves Movement For Children’s Mental Health, created by Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is helping parents open the lines of communication – especially around tough areas such as social media, bullying, mental health concerns and self-criticism.
The power of conversation
When trusted adults ask questions, listen to their answers and take the time to understand, kids feel supported. That builds trust, creates healthy relationships and increases the likelihood children will continue to open up in the future. The key is engaging in a conversation that doesn’t pressure children but rather encourages their participation.
These three strategies will help you start open and honest conversations.
1. Set the stage
Start by creating a daily habit of simply checking in with all members of the family. Make these check-ins easy and lighthearted. The goal at this point is to simply establish a routine for having conversations. Then, once a routine is established, it will be easier to have more serious conversations.
With any conversation, try to talk when there are fewer distractions so that children will be more focused. Family dinners, car rides and bedtime all provide good opportunities.
As you begin to set the stage, remember that children learn by watching us. Talking about your day and sharing your thoughts and feelings will encourage children to do the same. While it is important to communicate at your child’s developmental level, it’s okay to tell them you had a hard day. When you open up about something that concerns you, it helps children learn that sharing emotions is normal behavior.
2. Ask open-ended questions
Avoid asking questions that will generate one-word, “yes or no” answers. For example, ask your children to tell you about the best part of their day. When you give them an opportunity to talk about their experiences, they are more likely to share information about their feelings and concerns.
3. Find the right time for difficult conversations
Always begin these conversations when everyone is calm and emotions are in check. Make sure your child is ready to talk. If they aren’t, ask when would be a good time. Of course, if they don’t want to talk, don’t force the issue. Simply let them know you care about them and agree on a better time to come back to the conversation. Children are more likely to engage when they feel they have some control over the situation.
Conversation starters on bullying, social media, mental health concerns and more
It can be hard to know the right words to start a conversation around mental health. On Our Sleeves has created conversation starters on specific topics to help.
- General questions to create the habit of talking: These questions can help you build the habit before you dive into tougher topics.
- Social media: According to a new national survey, conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of On Our Sleeves, 50% of parents of children younger than 18 have noticed their children’s mental health has suffered in the past 12 months due to social media use. These questions help you approach the topic with curiosity.
- Bullying: People who are bullied can endure long-term mental and emotional effects. And children who bully others are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and are at elevated risk for suicide compared to children not involved in bullying. These conversation starters help you ask a child about bullying behaviors they may have seen.
- Self-criticism: For the child who seems to feel terrible after making a common mistake, learn how to talk to them about how to bounce back from setbacks.
- Mental health concerns: Pre-pandemic, one in five children was living with a mental illness. If you’re worried about your child’s mood or behavior, use these conversation starters specific to mental health concerns.
For a complete guide on starting conversations, visit How to Start a Conversation with Kids, which includes downloadable questions to help you get conversations started.
Find additional information resources on talking with kids about politics, body image and more at OnOurSleeves.org
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