The great thing about being in 2020 is that there is unprecedented access to life-changing tools to help parents provide the best possible foundation for their children. Here are four practical approaches to teaching children ways to create robust mental health:
1. Teach children about the connection between their bodies and their feelings.
Using age-appropriate language, explain to your children how our bodies can give us clues to know what we are feeling. For example, a tummy-ache just before an exam, or before a race at school can be our bodies’ way of showing that we are feeling nervous, scared or overwhelmed. When our faces go red when we are fighting with someone it probably means we are feeling angry, but if our faces go red when we fall down in front of others, then it probably means we feel embarrassed.
Teaching children to understand and trust their bodies and learn how to listen to them is a great tool to help them be able to work out what is going on. Kids who have great mental health are people who are able to decipher what they are feeling, why they are feeling it and feel the feeling without shoving it down or pushing it aside.
Many of us were not taught about where our bodies feel our emotions, so a great starting point might be to equip yourself with information on how your own body feels feelings. This is a very useful article that explains a ‘map’ for where our bodies experience emotion.
2. Make learning about emotions fun.
Teach your children about all the many names of different emotions. Helping our children broaden their vocabulary will be an excellent tool for them to use when they next encounter a challenging situation where they feel a whole bunch of confusing feelings and struggle to know which is which.
Make it a fun experience where emotions are not seen as negative or bad, but that all emotions from love to anger and everything in between are gifts given to us to help us navigate life. There are some excellent board games, posters, movies and books that families can use to create an interactive and positive family experience. This will create a sense of safety, and deep respect for one another.
When we accurately identify and accept our own feelings, we are able to accurately identify and accept other people’s feelings. This is the very foundation of empathy which is the bedrock of robust mental health. When we teach our children to accurately identify how they are feeling, they feel seen, understood and loved.
3. Intentionally create imaginative conversations around ‘What would you do if…”
This is a great dinner time conversation that can be entertaining and funny, whilst simultaneously helping your children prepare themselves for challenges in life. Each person can take a turn to come up with a different scenario to ask the family—for example: “What would you do if you were walking out of the store and you dropped the groceries all over the floor.” Then each person gets to think of how they might feel and what they would then do.
This is an excellent way for parents to get to know their children more, which adds to your own parenting toolbox for how best to parent each child as an individual. As each person shares how they might feel, and what they would do the children are adding options to their thought processes. Often when children feel sad or overwhelmed, part of it is that they feel confused and don’t know what to do—they don’t see any options. This “What would you do if…” conversation is an easy and effective way to address that.
4. Develop your listening skills—answer questions with questions.
This is one of the more challenging things to learn as adults. Good listening is a skill that can be slowly developed over time and gets easier and easier the more you do it. Connection to the significant people in our lives is the very medicine to treat mental health challenges.
We underestimate how much we all need deep, safe and meaningful connections to other human beings. Especially in this age where we communicate so much through the digital space—actual human face to face connection is more important than ever. Good listening + connection = great mental health.
A few ways to listen actively are things like when your child asks you a question, that you don’t rattle off a quick answer. Instead, you stop and think why are they asking that particular question? Perhaps they already have their own answer and are just looking to connect with you about what they think. I have found an effective strategy is to look at my child when he or she asks me a question (to show I am paying attention), then nod, and then say “Oh, that’s a great question. Hmm, I wonder? What do you think?”, and then leave a pause for them to think.
Every time what ends up happening is my child usually has a whole range of thoughts about their question, and they just want to process their thoughts with me. They don’t always want an answer. If they do want an answer, they always ask again and say, “But what do you think, Mom?” At that point, I offer my thoughts in an open-handed way—in a way that invites further input from them and doesn’t shut the conversation down.
If active listening is a new thing for you and you would like to learn more then check out this book which is practical and accessible.
Teaching children how to think, rather than what to think will set them up to be able to problem-solve whatever life throws at them with dexterity and confidence.