Siobhán O’Neill & Koulla Yiasouma join us for #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek

We are delighted to be joined by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma and the Interim Mental Health Champion for NI, Siobhán O’Neill.

Koulla offers some advice on how children and young people can #ExpressYourself and talk about how they are feeling.

We partnered up with Professor Siobhan O’Neill, at the beginning of the week for her weekly column in Belfast Live, there she discussed “How to encourage your children to express their feelings as the pandemic continues”

Children’s Mental Health Week is a chance for all of us to take a moment and concentrate on the wellbeing of a group who have lost so much as a result of this pandemic. This year’s theme is ‘Express Yourself’; encouraging our children and young people to finding ways to share their feelings and emotions through creative ways.

The pandemic has resulted in children being separated from their friends and teachers for a long time. Many children have lost loved ones and may now see the world as a very scary, dangerous and uncertain place. The additional stress of separation and pressure of home schooling, without the benefits of interaction with friends, may feel unmanageable and overwhelming.

Recognising what we are feeling, and understanding where the feeling came from, are the first steps to managing our mental health.  It can often be difficult for parents, carers and educators to know how to best approach conversations with our children about their emotions.  So here are some tips I would suggest on talking about mental health and feelings with your children:

  • Make time to be fully present with your child; this can be really difficult, especially if we are attempting to juggle our work roles and home schooling. Devoting even 15 or 30 minutes to your child, and focusing solely on them at that time, will help them to feel more connected to you.
  • “Do” things together; this will feel much less threatening and challenging than simply trying to have an in-depth discussion. Ask your child to help you do a household chore (they may even enjoy the feeling of contributing); or help your child with an art or craft activity. During the activity, find opportunities to ask your child open questions about what they are doing online and what life is like for them.
  • Have “shoulder to shoulder” conversations; it can be easier to talk about difficult feelings when we are not sitting face to face. Go for a walk, or a drive together and use that time to have a chat about how everything is going for them. Ask about the positive as well as the negative. Even very small children will be able to tell you about the best part of their day. Children can be reluctant to say that something was unpleasant or makes them feel bad. I find that asking “what would you like to change?” is a good way of uncovering any problems or difficulties.
  • School work is important but many children are exhausted and stressed, which makes learning impossible. Maintaining a good relationship with your child should be your top priority. If your child knows that you are there for them they will be better placed to ask for help and support. 
  • Accept their feelings and empathise with them. Parents can unintentionally dismiss a child’s worries or concerns in an effort to be reassuring, and this can result in frustration and a feeling of being disconnected. Listening intently, and providing validation are important. Saying “that must have been really difficult for you” and asking questions such as, “tell me more about what that is like for you” really helps them feel heard and understood. It is only when you understand their worries that you are in a position to problem solve with them. 
  • If you have young children, imaginary play is a really valuable tool to help them express themselves. Role play using their favourite characters or toys, and encourage them to discuss how the characters are feeling in different situations.
  • If your child is struggling to express how they feel, get creative and ask them to describe their feeling as a colour or shape. You could draw the feeling or ask the child to show you where the feeling is in their body. Again, once the feeling has been identified you can together work out ways to shift it by helping them work out solutions to the underlying problem, and using distraction techniques or movement to change their mood (a little shake or dance can work wonders).
  • Be honest with your child; we shouldn’t expect life to be normal right now, and there are many things that we are uncertain about. Parents should focus on providing safety and giving some level of structure and certainty on a day-to-day basis. Make a schedule for each day and be sure to include fun activities, favourite meals and special treats such as family movies. It’s also important to be hopeful and discuss what you might do when we are able to travel and see our friends again.
  • Children rely on parents and teachers for cues about whether they should feel afraid. They will subconsciously detect when you are struggling and will mirror those feelings. It is therefore vital that you look after your own mental health, so that you can look after them. Use the Take 5 Steps to Wellbeing (see my previous column), and check out the website for information on sources of support.

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