by Helen Davis
R U OK? Day was the perfect chance to reflect on how we speak to our children about mental health. Many parents struggle to broach the topic with their kids, especially when they’re going through those tricky teenage years. But the truth is, if you can build emotional vocabulary from an early age, your children will be a lot more likely to open up once they get to teenage years.
So how can parents begin the lifelong journey of asking R U OK? First off, it’s important to make talking to your child about their feelings a regular occurrence. By having some form of meaningful conversation every day, words will flow a lot more readily when they have something more serious on their mind.
Make sure you’re asking open-ended questions, so that a blunt ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response isn’t possible. The location of your talks are important too: try to avoid formal sit down situations, which can often feel confrontational or combative. Broaching difficult topics in the car or while walking are great options, because many people – especially teenagers – find it easier to talk freely when they aren’t required to make eye contact.
Let your children know that they are free to discuss any topic with you, even if they might feel embarrassed to talk about it. Make they understand who they should speak to if they are worried about something. A good rule of thumb is to teach your children to identify five adults that they trust and feel comfortable speaking to, as even younger children should be able to count to five by using their fingers.
Of course, if there’s something your child brings up that you don’t feel qualified to help them with, try finding specialist help together. That way, they will still feel like you’re supporting them, all while teaching your child that even adults need help sometimes.
Another great place to seek advice is via your child’s school teacher, principal or school counsellor, who can often link families to a range of free services. Plus, remember that they see your child for six or more hours per day, so they may have noticed things you haven’t.
Any changes happening in the family – even something seemingly insignificant, such as moving house – can upset and bother children, even if we don’t think they will. Ensure your child’s teachers are always aware of these changes, to allow them to support your child from within the school.
And finally, remember that R U OK Day is also about encouraging your children to help others. Teach your child how best to support others, including that children shouldn’t have to carry the burden of helping their friends on their own shoulders. Children sometimes ask each other to keep secrets, and no one wants to be seen as a ‘snitch’. But in most cases, telling a trusted adult is the best way to help.
By making these changes now, you can set your child up for a lifetime of emotional maturity, along with the ability to help others in need. And if you’re stuck, try asking one simple question: R U OK?
About the author:
Helen Davis is the Principal of Eastwood Public School, a high value-add NSW Public School in north-west Sydney that offers its students a unique place to learn and thrive www.eastwood.nsw.edu.au Her previous experience includes time as a wellbeing officer and she has been at the helm of schools across northern and western Sydney for the past 16 years.
Helen knows how to ensure children’s success, including a deep understanding of inclusive education and personalised learning to create classroom environments that maximise student engagement and learning, and the wellbeing of all students remains at the core of everything she does. She has also led and advised principals and senior leaders on the implementation of various programs including suspension, distance education, attendance and health.