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"My Voice Matters": A Guide for Parents on Fostering Mental Wellness and Self-Advocacy in Children

This year, the UK celebrates Children's Mental Health Week from February 5th through the 11th, with the theme "My Voice Matters." This week highlights the importance of empowering youth to advocate for their mental well-being through skill development in communicating their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Parents play a pivotal role in their children's mental health. There are many ways in which you can help support your child's emotional wellness and their ability to advocate for their emotional needs, instilling skills that will help them throughout their lives. This includes learning how to talk with your child about emotional health.


The emotional impact of COVID continues to resonate years after we have transitioned out of periods of intense fear and lockdown. This couldn't be truer for children and teens. Researchers in the UK found 69% of youth described their mental health as poor now that they are back at school. A 2023 study in the UK found high levels of clinical depression at 48% and anxiety at 51% in youth. These staggering statistics highlight the importance of nurturing your child's mental wellness more than ever. As parents, it's essential to not only be attuned to your children's emotional needs but also to empower them with the tools to advocate for their mental health and that their voice matters.





Teach Emotional Intelligence


Often, the first step in supporting your child's ability to talk about their feelings is to help them understand what and why they feel that way. Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognize, understand, and deal skillfully with one's own emotions and the emotions of others. High EI comes from the ability to regulate one's emotions, recognize the feelings of others, show empathy, and display good judgment in social interactions. Instilling EI can begin at a very young age. Talk to young children about "big feelings," allowing them to experience them. Help them label their feelings and discuss with your child what caused them to experience that emotional reaction. This conversation can naturally progress from permission to feel those emotions, "It is okay to feel angry your brother took your toy," to a discussion about navigating the feeling and self-advocate.

Parents who practice healthy EI skills can further enforce these principles with their children. Reflect to your child in an age-appropriate manner your feelings about stressors and how you choose to navigate them. Modeling openness in discussing how stressors and events impact your emotions can open the door for your child to feel safe discussing their own. Your efforts will help your child identify and label their feelings, teaching them to understand the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This awareness enables them to advocate for their mental health by expressing their needs more effectively. Strong EI modeled by parents invites children to feel safe in expressing themselves.


Invite Open Communication


Talking with your kids about mental health can be a difficult conversation. A poll conducted in the UK found that 64% of youth rarely speak to their parents about their mental health. How you approach these conversations matters. Mental Health First Aid offers helpful information on fostering open communication with your child about emotional well-being:


1. Be genuine. Children can sense when adults are not being authentic. These conversations do not need to be held with excessive pomp and circumstance. Allow for natural conversation opportunities. Express that their feelings and well-being are important to you, but acknowledge it can be hard to talk about complicated feelings. Offer that you are there to listen and invite them to talk about only what they are ready to say.


2. Don't be afraid of moments of silence. Allow for quiet moments in conversation. This gives your child the time to process what they are feeling or find the right words to describe it to you. Sometimes, their internal reflection based on the questions or prompts you provide is necessary and helpful for their own internal means of coping with the intense emotions they may be trying to navigate. Pushing conversation can turn kids off from talking with you about their feelings. Sometimes, that silence should be yours. Kids need you to listen and hear what they are saying. They may not be looking for answers or your advice, but talking through it can be a powerful experience.


3. Keep it about them. It is easy to want to communicate that you can relate to how they feel by comparing their experience to one of your own from your childhood. This does not accomplish what you are hoping for. Instead, it can leave them feeling belittled or overshadowed.


4. Acknowledge and validate. Don't diminish your child's feelings by questioning why they might feel anxious or depressed. Even though a young person's problems may seem trivial to an adult, they are profoundly significant to a youth. Don't compare or minimize to make them "feel better." Avoid lecturing or showing negative emotions. Acknowledge and validate their emotions rather than dismissing them.





Starting a Conversation


It can be challenging to know what to say and when to say it. Don't make these conversations a formal affair. Instead, talk with your child while being alongside them, such as on a walk or playing a game. At dinner, ask everyone in the family share one good thing and one negative thing about their day. You can also try some of these conversation starters below:


• What made you feel happy today?

• Who did you sit with at lunch?

• What one thing could you have changed about today?

• When your child describes a negative event a friend experienced, ask your child how they felt about it.

• You don't seem yourself right now. I am here to talk if you want to.

• When your child describes a difficult problem, ask them, "What do you think you should do?"

• Know your child. Comment on changes in their behavior:

• They have withdrawn from some friends – did they have an argument?

• You notice a drop in their academic performance – is there a distraction they're struggling with?

• They appear to have become moody or withdrawn – is there something on their mind?


Most importantly, the message you want your child to receive is that you are there for them.


Avoid:

• Conversations at the height of distress.

• Telling them what to do.

• Minimizing their feelings.

• Blaming others.



Remember that even though you want to fix your child's problems and worries, you are serving them best by being there to support them and help them find their internal strength to navigate challenging emotions. As parents, our role extends beyond providing for our children's physical needs. By actively promoting their mental wellness, teaching them to advocate for themselves, and being there for tough conversations, we equip them with invaluable skills to serve them throughout their lives. The journey towards good mental health is ongoing, and your consistent support is a powerful influence on your child's ability to navigate life with resilience and confidence.




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