It’s Mental Health Week in Canada and this year’s focus is to “get loud” on what mental health really is and further reduce the stigma that exists around mental health.
When I started at SMUS seven years ago, I remember students would practically dive into my office, hiding from their peers, and may have felt ashamed to see a counsellor. This meant that way too frequently they wouldn’t find their way to me until they were at a point of desperation.
As I reflect on mental health at our school now I’m pleased to say that things are quite different. Teachers welcome me into their classrooms to talk openly about mental health and many students let it be known they are checking in with me. My work is also becoming more preventative and focused on mental health promotion. Encouragingly, this is reflected in a recent survey sharing that 57% of Canadians believe that there is less stigma around mental illness compared to five years ago.
The #GetLoud campaign as part of Mental Health Week this year zeroes in on one key message: mental health affects everyone.
We know that a relationship with at least one caring adult is key to child’s well-being. As part of Mental Health Week we celebrated National Child and Youth Mental Health Day on May 7. The tagline for this year’s day was, “I care about you,” aimed at promoting the important connection between adults and children.
Our goal is to help our students understand that thoughts, feelings and behaviours impact overall mental health. A child’s overall well-being is comprised of several components including sense of self, belonging, contribution, hope, purpose, meaning, enjoyment and resilience – and all of these factors contribute to their mental health.
We all have a role to play in supporting students. During Mental Health Week and the other 51 weeks of the year, we at SMUS will continue to do what we do well: connect with and care for your children, because everyone has mental health and everyone deserves to feel well. Together, let’s get loud.
Here are four tips for you to support the mental health of your child at home:
Connect before you redirect
When your child comes to you, really listen to what they’re saying before doling out that life advice. Ensure your child knows they are being heard and understood by using a calm tone of voice, acknowledging the importance of their feelings and being nonjudgmental.
This means that sometimes we need to put our own agendas on hold, refrain from jumping to judgement and problem solving, and just be present with our children. It means saying, “I’m so glad you came to me. Let’s work together to solve this,” instead of, “I told you so.” It takes time and patience but the connection you will build is worth the effort.
Be creative about checking in
Finding time to find out how your child is really doing will help you see if what’s going on inside is what you are seeing on the outside. Creative thinking may be required for this one! Your child may not be a talker or be able to tell you exactly what’s going on for them. Those car rides to sport practice or piano lessons, a walk together or a journal that the two of you share back and forth can be great ways to get your child sharing with you what’s going on in their world.
Try a scaling question to get an average of how they are feeling (1-10). How did they climb up to that number? What keeps them down from feeling closer to a 10? Have a plan with them if they hit the low numbers. The scaling question is a great strategy because it helps build self awareness over the factors that contribute to their mood and gives you insight into the congruence between their inner and outer worlds (do they appear how they feel?).
Write a self-care strategies list
Work together with your child to create a list of self-care strategies to use when they are feeling overwhelmed. These strategies are best thought of when your child is doing well, so that when they have a challenging day you are able to draw from the list you’ve already created.
Self care strategies are unique to your child but some suggestions include going for a walk, having a bubble bath, listening to music, watching a funny TV show, hanging out with family or friends, or drawing. We sometimes assume that kids will naturally learn effective coping strategies but they should be taught, practised and reinforced. They are also introduced to a number of strategies at school, including deep breathing and mindfulness, that work well at home. When in doubt, focus on teaching your child about their emotions using the acronym RULER: Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate.
Help them get enough sleep
Children aren’t always sleeping when you think they are. Getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done but it helps to keep a consistent bedtime routine (and bedtime), and reduce caffeine, exercise, screen time and bright lights leading into the evening hours. It’s always a good idea to ensure they have a device-free sleep; a buzzing phone is hard to resist no matter your age or the time of night.
If your child is having difficulties sleeping it helps to get to the root of the problem and solve it together. Is it worrying thoughts, feeling restless, room temperature or a physical distraction in the room? Sleep is important because it acts like the janitorial system in the brain. It helps us to clean and tidy up the brain, and file away what we will keep in our memory. Sleep also helps us to think clearly, make sound decisions and have positive social interactions. Sleep is one of the three foundations of well-being (the others being exercise and nutrition) – so don’t forget to focus on all three components!