This month marks Children’s Mental Health Week, so it seemed like a perfect time to discuss something we are passionate about at Braintastic! Science - talking to children and young people about mental wellbeing. This can seem like a daunting task. Mental health is a big topic, and it can be difficult to work out how to approach it, particularly with children. But the more you talk about feelings, emotions and how to deal with them, and the earlier you start, the more normal it becomes. And the more normal it becomes, the more likely it is a child will feel comfortable opening up when their feelings become too big for them to handle alone. So how should you approach it? Here are our top science-backed tips for talking to young people about mental wellbeing:
1) Listen, listen, listen
Active listening is a vital skill for anyone who interacts with children. It’s a way to show that you are really paying attention to them, and that what they are saying matters. This makes it more likely they will come to you with problems in the future. The CDC has some great guidelines for active listening, including examples, but to sum it up:
Stop anything else you are doing, and get down to the child’s level
Let them talk
Mirror back to them what they have told you. It can help to start with the phrase: “It seems like you are saying/ feeling…..” If you aren’t sure what they are feeling, you can always take a guess- this might help them learn how to recognize emotions for themselves
It’s also important to ask before you problem solve, especially with older kids and teenagers. Sometimes they might want your advice, but other times they are just looking to vent.
2) Model emotional regulation
We aren’t born able to regulate our emotions- it’s something that develops as we grow up. As adults, we have strong connections between the prefrontal cortex of our brains (the bit behind our foreheads) and the emotional limbic system deep within our brains. This allows us to damp down emotions when they arise, and to (mostly) control them. But these connections don’t properly develop until around puberty, and the prefrontal cortex is still maturing in our early twenties. This means children and young people can struggle with how to control their emotions and calm themselves. Instead, children look to their adult caregivers to help them regulate their emotions. If that adult is calm and composed, the child’s stress response will follow suit.
3) Open up about your own feelings
One way to break the stigma around talking about emotions and mental health is for adults to get comfortable talking about mental wellbeing in schools and at home. It can also be a great way to start a conversation, particularly around shared traumas such as the pandemic. Obviously there is a balance here, but telling students, for example, that coming back into school during the pandemic made you feel excited, but also a bit nervous or worried, might show them that it’s ok for them to talk about similar feelings.
4) Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers
Kids ask some tricky questions- trust us, Braintastic! Science presenters LOVE doing Q&A after our science shows for schools but we don’t always know the answers! It’s totally fine to tell your students that you don’t know the answer to a question. In fact, sometimes it can be better, as it is an opportunity for you to find out together.
We hope you find these tips useful. But if you still aren’t sure where to start, another great option is to bring in a professional to run a science workshop introducing your students to ideas of mental wellbeing and resilience. Our ‘Building a resilient brain’ workshop is designed to do just that, in a fun, child-friendly way. Just get in touch if you would like to chat about us bringing the session to your school, either online or in person.
Plus, in our next blog post, we share some of our favourite lesson plans and resources for PSHE that will help you talk to kids about mental health - do subscribe to our mailing list to make sure you never miss a post!