It seems we are all getting more comfortable talking about adult mental health and of course this is great. However, do we talk enough about children’s mental health? It seems we often talk about children being resilient. bouncing back, things being just a phase, in other words we don’t always seem to take children’s emotional pain and distress as seriously as we do adults. When children have experienced a trauma or a loss we often expect them to recover quicker than we would expect for ourselves.
Perhaps part of the difficulty with talking about children’s mental health is shame. As adults we can just about bear it if we are not good at our jobs, or if we make difficult partners, or if we struggle socially or financially, but to ‘fail’ as a parent is unbearable. The truth is children’s emotional or mental health is always determined by a range of factors the same as with adults, and no parent is failing or succeeding. The parent/child relationship is the same as any other relationship, it is a dynamic and sometimes it is comfortable and other times it feels challenging. There is great pressure on parents to provide endless exciting experiences for their children while at the same time being continually emotionally available and often these two expectations are at odds. We expect ourselves to be perfect parents, to get it ‘right’ all the time when really the best anyone can really aim for is to be good enough and there are times we all fall short of that too. A child does not need a ‘perfect’ parent, that doesn’t set up anything terribly useful either inside the child or in their expectations about the world around them.
When a child is suffering emotionally parents often blame themselves and this sometimes prevents parents from seeking help and advocating for their child’s needs. Parents often fear being judged because they are judging themselves enough as it is and it is a painful place to be. The first step in seeking help for your child is to be kind to yourself and then gain more objectivity. So we need to use the same parameters when we think about our children’s emotional and mental health as we do for our own. Are the difficulties getting in the way of your child’s normal every day life? Are the difficulties impacting on their self-image and feelings of self-worth? Is your child’s education being affected? Can your child still maintain their friendships? Is your child having difficulty sleeping or eating or both? Does your child complain of tummy aches and headaches with no real cause? Is your child withdrawing from the things they worry about? These are the signifiers we would look for in adults and when thinking about our children’s emotional needs, we need to think in similar terms.
Feelings of shame and self-blame can prevent us from talking and seeking help and children rely on adults to communicate all their health needs for them. Children aren’t always good at articulating how they feel with words so they rely on their important adults to speak for them and that is why we need to keep talking about children’s emotional and mental health.