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Teaching Young People About Mental Health

Experts are calling for greater emphasis to be placed on teaching children and young students about mental health.

Writer Matt Haig (who not only writes popular children’s books that explore mental health issues, but has battled with depression himself) has warned educators and parents that they ‘must get ahead of the game.’ Mental health, he argues, as important for children as ‘road safety’ and it should be ‘ingrained at some point in the curriculum.’

Haig is not the only one calling for young people to be educated about mental health. The Telegraph also reported that Ofsted are considering a new assessment within their school inspections, which would evaluate how well a school looks after its pupils mental health and wellbeing.

The news is sadly unsurprising. Recent studies have found that more than one in 10 young people between the age of five and 16 suffer from a mental health disorder (around three pupils in every school class). However, cuts to children’s mental health services mean that it’s increasingly necessary for schools, tutors and parents to provide both education and support around mental health.

In this blog, we’ll run through a few simple things you can teach your child or student about mental health and wellbeing.

Listen to your body

One of the biggest challenges children face when it comes to mental health isn’t to do with emotional capacity (children experience complex emotions just as adults do); it concerns having the tools with which to identify their feelings (and, then, being able to talk about them).

Teaching young people to listen to their bodies can help them to pinpoint both emotions and triggers. The idea that our bodies are sending us messages about our emotional state is not a myth, either: studies have shown that there is a real link between the body and the brain. It’s known as the ‘gut-brain’ connection (which explains why we get ‘butterflies’ in our tummy when we feel nervous).

Explore this with your child or student; ask them to think about ‘messages’ their bodies have sent them, or to write it down if they experience something like this. Examples might be sensations like eyes filling with water when sad, or feeling hot when angry or upset; or even physical things they’ve noticed when looking in the mirror, like the back of their ears reddening when frustrated, or their cheeks growing pink.

Expand emotional vocabulary

Now that you’ve spoken a little about how to identify when certain emotions are present, its time to talk about what those emotions are. Giving young people the vocabulary with which to express their feelings is vitally important. For younger children, visual cues can be helpful: you could draw a range of characters with different expressions to help them understand the differences between emotions (anger vs. frustration, for instance); or, you could refer to a film like Inside Out, which cleverly brings emotions to life by depicting them as different characters.

Next, turn your attention to other people. How do people express how they are feeling in real life, in books, on the television? Look at their body language, the words they speak, and their facial expressions. Together you can try to ‘spot the emotion’ and begin to recognise patterns.

Finally, turn to yourself. Young people learn about feelings by watching other people: parents and educators are some of the people children come into contact with the most, and as such it’s important that they are effective role models. Be open about how you feel and discuss how your emotional response to different scenarios, and what steps you take to handle your feelings.

Explore the hypothetical

As well as using imaginary situations to analyse emotional responses, it can be helpful to broaden the discussion to ask ‘what would you do?’ questions. You can ask: ‘what would you do if someone said something nasty to you?’ or ‘who would you tell if something upsetting happened to you at school?’ This is a really valuable exercise when it comes to building emotional vocabulary and, more importantly, mental resilience: it helps children prepare for the unexpected.

Learn to relax

One of the most important things a young person can learn is how to self-calm: these techniques can be useful in all kinds of situations, from helping them to handle a nasty encounter at school, to battling anxiety before an exam.

Here are a few tips to try:

Blowing out candles. Learning to take deep breaths when emotions are running high seems an obvious trick, but many young people have never learned to do this! In this exercise, you pretend that your fingers are birthday candles. Hold up five and then blow out for a count of five, curling each finger down as you are blowing. Repeat with six candles, seven, and so on, until you are inhaling and exhaling for longer periods of time.

Tense and release. Ask your child to form fists with their hands and squeeze everything really tightly, bringing their shoulders to their ears. Count to five, then let out a big breath and relax. Repeat this motion five times. To make the motion even more powerful, you can have them clench items in their fists (like soft balls).

Yoga. Learning to focus their mind and body through a sequence of calming poses can be really helpful for children. There are lots of yoga resources aimed at children; we like this article by YogaJournal which focuses on poses to quell anxiety in children (specifically separation anxiety, but it works for all kinds of tension). A great place to start, as they suggest, is with a downward dog. As the pose literally turns you upside down, it’s a good way to shift perspective; your hands and feet are connected to the floor, which has a grounding effect, but because your head is lower than your knees, blood and oxygen flow to the brain is altered. The pose has a calming yet invigorating effect, which can be enhanced by remaining in the stance and breathing deeply for a period of time.

Remember the ‘five ways to wellbeing’

A final tip is to remember the ‘five ways to wellbeing’, which was developed by the New Economics Foundation. NEF drew on the principle that even small changes can lead to a decrease in mental health issues and boost wellbeing generally, coming up with five actions that are thought to improve personal wellbeing.

The ‘five ways to wellbeing’ comprises a simple behavioural model that can be adopted in everyday life, as follows:

  • connect
  • be active
  • take notice
  • keep learning
  • give.

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