The tough conversation you need to have with your kids

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Talking to your kids can be difficult, but there is a crucial conversation parents need to have to ensure their child's mental wellbeing.

In a startling revelation, half of all mental health conditions we experience in life will have started by age 14, and one in seven young people aged 4 to 17 experience a mental health condition in any given year.

With young people less likely than any other age group to seek professional help, parents and carers play an important role in creating opportunities to have conversations that build awareness around mental health and help young people seek support if and when they need it.

As part of Do it For Dolly Day on May 13 – a time to honour Dolly Everett who took her life at the young age of 14 after suffering through vicious cyber bullying – Dr Charlotte Keating, psychologist and Dolly's Dream advisory board member, answers our questions about how to best speak to your child about mental health.

What is the best way to start the conversation with your kids?

There’s no right way to start the conversation, it really depends on the young person.

For example, with young children, you might encourage conversations about identifying their feelings or noticing their emotions.

“What was the best thing in your day? How did that make you feel? What was the hardest thing in your day, and how did that make you feel?”. It can help to use visuals or images like an emotions thermometer to help them express their feelings.

If they identify they were really upset, you could ask them how they can (or how they did) bring down the temperature, or what helps them to feel more emotionally comfortable – it could have been letting their friend know how they were feeling, or going for a run at the park, having a hug from their parents or the dog, or something else.

A supplied image obtained on Thursday, January 18, 2018, of Northern Territory teenager Amy 'Dolly' Everett. The Victorian racing industry will honour the life of Amy 'Dolly' Everett, a young horserider who took her own life to escape online bullying. (AAP Image/Victoria Racing Club Limited) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
A supplied image obtained on Thursday, January 18, 2018, of Northern Territory teenager Amy 'Dolly' Everett. The Victorian racing industry will honour the life of Amy 'Dolly' Everett, a young horserider who took her own life to escape online bullying. (AAP Image/Victoria Racing Club Limited) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

With an older child, pre-teen or teenager, the conversation might be more direct, but the timing and context, can be quite important.

It might be that you are on a drive in the car and the topic comes up organically, or it might be that they talk to you about a friend they’re worried about, or someone else you’ve heard about that might be struggling that can be a conversation enabler.

Try to discuss these experiences openly, and curiously, with the focus being on listening to what they have to say, and asking if they have ever felt low, anxious or similar, too, and how they managed with that.

There used to be much more of a stereotype around mental health. Due to considerable effort to raise awareness, in schools and online, including the may resources that now exist, young people are often (though not always) more aware of their feelings and can be quite open to talking about them.

What are some examples of questions you should ask them during the conversation?

Depending on the young person’s age, you might as ask a question as simple as, "how are you sleeping at the moment? Do you feel rested when you wake up? Or are you tired?"

Good sleep is a cornerstone of mental health. It helps our brain to manage our emotions, stress levels, and how we respond to the world around us. The answer to the question about sleep could help you to make changes to potentially improve their sleeping environment.

If it is an older child, or pre-teen/teen, you could collaboratively discuss with them, how they might like to go about improving the quality of their sleep or what might be keeping them up at night. It’s often, but not always because of technology. But it is worth delving a bit deeper – technology may be a distraction from thoughts they find hard to switch off from the events of the day that have been, or indeed, things their brain might worry about sometime in the future (homework, a test, or a sports carnival coming up).

Dr Charlotte Keating shares her advice for talking to your kids about mental health. Source: Supplied
Dr Charlotte Keating shares her advice for talking to your kids about mental health. Source: Supplied

You might encourage them to get a notepad so that they can out to write down the worries they’re experiencing, so that they can deal with them the next day (as a starting point). This gives a sense of expressing the worry, but also some control and agency over knowing they can do something about it the next day.

You can also ask them questions like; “if you’ve had a tough day at school, and you’re not feeling great, what are the sorts of things you might like to try in order to feel better?”. You might help create a list of ways that help them cope with the ups and downs of their day to day that they can try. It could be having a shower or a bath, listening to a meditation, it might be reading a book, going for a walk to release the day, listening to music, or connecting with the family dog in a quiet moment or at the park.

It might also be sitting still and letting the feelings be there, identifying and validating those feelings, before exploring what thoughts or ideas about the day (past events or future) that they might relate to.

You might also share with them what you do, when you may have felt similar in order to feel better. This can normalise their experience.

What are some of the do’s and do not’s when having these important conversations?

These conversations can feel sensitive, and vulnerable for both for young people and their carers. Some of the things that can help:

- Create time to talk. It’s hard to say when the right time is, though do your best to ensure that you feel calm, and steady, so that the moment won’t feel rushed.

- Is the environment/context suitable for these conversations? If you are in the car with multiple kids, or at the dinner table, or some other busy time, it’s potentially not going to go well to begin a conversation about feelings and emotions if you have a young person who is struggling. Having said this, it can sometimes be a normalising experience to go around the dinner table and discuss how everyone is travelling. Everyone’s children are different. Use your intuition (or perhaps ask in a quiet moment what the child’s preference is) to know whether a one-on-one or group environment will feel safest and most comfortable to have a conversation.

- If at first you don’t get far, keep trying. It can be tough to have these important conversations. If it doesn’t work well at first, try again perhaps in another environment. Think about the times that they have previously opened-up or been more relaxed. It might be driving in the car, going for a walk, or listening to their favourite music together.

- Listen and validate. Parents and carers can be very keen to help their young person to feel better, which can inadvertently have them trying to fix a problem, before hearing their young person out fully, or before really acknowledging and reflecting to their young person their own understanding of how the experience must feel for the young person. Regardless of age, many of us feel even a little better when someone takes the time to truly listen and understand our experience. It helps us to feel validated. When someone tries to problem-solve or fix a situation without having listened and reflected their understanding of our experience, it can inadvertently feel like they don’t have time for our problems, they’re hurrying us up, or our problems are too hard, that they’re not really a problem or that bad. This can reduce the perceived benefit of opening up, and may influence the likelihood of opening up in future.

- Create a plan about what to do, to try to feel better.

What action should you take after identifying your child might be struggling?

Depending on what they are struggling with, you might be able to help support them through it. If you feel that it would be beneficial to get extra support, you might ask them if it is okay to get some further support to help them feel better.

Dolly Everett was just 14 when. she took her life. Source: AAP
Dolly Everett was just 14 when she took her life. Source: AAP

Depending on the challenge, it can be best to start with their General Practitioner (GP) who can then refer to an appropriate person. If it’s something they can talk to the school counsellor about, that might be a helpful too, or if you are potentially in a rural or remote area, speaking with a telephone counsellor might provide an effective and accessible way to get help and advice, whether you’re a parent or young person. For example, Dolly’s Dream Support Line, 0488 881 033.

What are some red flags you should look out for, to know you might need to check in with your child?

You don’t need to look for red flags for a reason to have a check in with your child, it’s best to have a practice of quite regularly checking-in about how they’re feeling.

Establishing a routine around talking about feelings means they will be more likely to feel comfortable to talk with you, if they are feeling like they’re struggling.

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Red flags can look like a sustained change in their usual way of being. A change in usual behaviour or mood could look like: being more withdrawn (in their room) avoiding time with family and friends or withdrawing from activities they usually enjoy or get pleasure from. They may appear more emotional (sad, down, irritable, or anxious). They may speak with you less about what they are doing. They may be sleeping poorly (waking early, waking late, disrupted sleep), a change in appetite (eating more or less than usual).

Essentially, look for changes in the way they might be feeling (expressing emotions), how they are thinking (about themselves, others, or the future), how they are behaving, and whether that is out of character for them.

Of course, the red flags are not always obvious, so it helps to have the check-in as a part of your normal routine.

If you are concerned about the mental health of yourself or a loved one, seek support and information by calling Lifeline 13 11 14, Mensline 1300 789 978, or Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

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