On Monday I attended a workshop in London. The event was run by child psychiatrist Dr Sarah Vohra who (on top of her day job in the NHS) speaks and has written a book about mental health in children and young people. The event focused on dealing with anxiety, our own and our children’s. I have used some of the content she shared at the event to inform this blog post. If you want to know more about Dr Sarah you can find her on Instagram here, and can pre-order her book here (our next month. I can’t wait to read it).
It can be scary to start a conversation with our children about mental health. It can feel unnatural and forced. It can be tempting to ignore the problem and hope it will resolve itself.
But if we want to be able to help out children manage and maintain good mental health we have to be willing to talk to them about it, honestly and openly.
I am a go with the flow, not very organised person who would rather wait until it ‘feels right’ to chat about something. But I have learnt if I adopt this approach whether it is with my husband, children or friends either:
- The conversation doesn’t ever happen, or
2. When it does I am ill equipped for it, or too tired. (Do anyone else’s children suddenly want to open up at bedtime when you are completely spent?), or
3. It gets to crisis point (a panic attack, fear of going to sleep at bedtime, or separation anxiety when you have to go to work) before I start to talk.
And if I leave it until then, when the person I am talking to is experiencing the white in-the-moment heat of fear, they are unable to hear any rational advice or support I might have to offer, no matter how brilliant.
It is no good waiting until the right mood, or the right opportunity presents itself. We must be pro-active and brave. We have to make a plan to have a conversation, even if we know it may be difficult. Proactive planning means a healthy and fruitful conversation is much more likely.
Three ways to plan for a good conversation.
Decide when is a good time for the conversation to take place. If the anxiety your child is experiencing is around bedtime, then this is not a good time, plan to talk earlier in the day before the worries of this evening’s bedtime are present. Find a time when you know you will have enough energy and won’t be rushed. Think about when this particular child will be feeling relaxed and not too tired or hungry. It can be difficult to re-start a conversation when it has had to be shut down the first time around because you ran out of time, so choose a time carefully when you will not be cut short.
2. LOCATION (L)
Find a space that feels safe, both to you and to your child. Maybe it is in their room, or in a den you have made together. Maybe it is out of the house so they are sure of your undivided attention. Make sure there is appropriate privacy so you both are free to speak without being interrupted or overheard. As my children are getting older (into the teenage years) this good and necessary need for privacy has become essential. Don’t launch into the conversation in a shared space where others may come in.
3. CHARACTERISTIC (C)
Take time to consider the individual nature of your child. What do they enjoy? Where do they feel most at ease? A conversation does not have to happen face to face, maybe it is easier to talk while you do something together, a craft, or the washing up, or playing a video game. Or maybe you know your child feels most themselves when they are outdoors or in nature, plan for a walk together at the park or local woods. Choose an environment and potentially an activity where they feel relaxed and not stressed.
How to have a good conversation: T.L.C.
I know these are not revolutionary ideas, but I have been challenged recently to think about how often I actually do this? Do I make time for these conversations or do I hope my children will simply choose a good time to open up to me?
Honestly, mainly the latter.
If you asked me what was the most important thing to me I would say my children, but even though this is the truth, I allow myself to get busy with my life and all the millions of tasks that have to be achieved each day. I don’t prioritise taking steps to improve my communication with my children.
I’m not beating myself up about this and, if you can relate to how I feel, neither should you. Rather than using these ideas as a reprimand for all the ways I am not getting this parenting thing perfect, I am going to allow it to inspire me and I am going to experiment. I am going to think through what TLC would look like for my children (because it will be different for each of them) and have a go. Why don’t you join me? We can compare notes on the other side!