SATs week and Mental Health Awareness week both happen at the same time this year, which is possibly a coincidence, but also a great opportunity to raise the issue of how we can support our young peoples’ mental and emotional wellbeing and help them to develop resilience during challenging times. As many parents and teachers are all too aware, the pressure that children are under these days seems to have increased since we were their age and this is highlighted during SATs (Statutory Assessment Tests) week, when nerves and emotions can be running high.
Emotional resilience is an amazing life skill to have, helping us to navigate life’s ups and downs, bounce back when we are faced with disappointments and persist even when the going gets tough. As parents, carers, teachers and other adults, there are three things we can do, on a daily basis, in our interactions with the children in our lives, to help them develop resilience and reap its rewards as they grow and take on more and more of life’s challenges.
Talking about emotions
One of the best things we can do to support children’s mental and emotional health is to ‘normalise’ emotions by talking about them. This doesn’t mean that children must tell us how they are feeling all of the time, or that we must talk to them about things that we don’t feel are appropriate for them to discuss, but it simply means acknowledging that emotions are normal, everyone has them and they are part of everyday life. There are several ways you can do this:
- How you are feeling – Occasionally drop into the conversation how you are or were feeling. This could be whilst telling a story about your day: “I felt really frustrated today when my colleague didn’t listen to me” or “It feels so relaxing to be sitting here in the garden with you.” The trick is to do this when you are feeling centred and calm and are in a place to be able to talk about this emotion and not be overwhelmed by it.
- ‘Checking in’ – going around the dinner table or before bed and noticing how you’re each feeling. This could be daily check-in, or simply when it seems to fit in with family life. Maybe on the drive or walk home from school or on the way to dance class. Checking-in means feeling inside the body and noticing emotions as sensations within the body. You might notice tightness, warmth, tingling, areas of tension. This is not always about sharing how you feel, although sharing can be very beneficial, but more about acknowledging all emotions. When we take time to do this regularly, it becomes easier to notice when we’re struggling with a big emotion, such as anger or sadness, and take action before we become overwhelmed.
- What’s the weather like? I find that recognising and sharing emotions can be very new for lots of children, it certainly was for me when I first started practising mindfulness 7 years ago. A great way to introduce this, especially if we don’t have the words to describe our emotions, is to check in with what the weather is like inside our bodies. This can give us new ways of describing how we’re feeling but also gives us a little distance from the emotions, which is what we are trying to ultimately achieve, this distance is resilience. It might be sunny with clouds, stormy and rainy, windy, blue skies with rainbows, low, grey cloud, or a mixture of different weathers all at once!
Sounds pretty simple, right? Listening mindfully can definitely be very challenging, especially with our own children. When we listen mindfully, we give a person our full attention. Next time you have a sense that a child is about to share something important with you or you get the feeling something ‘big’ has happened, this is your cue to practise mindful listening… [I’d love to hear how you get on!] You bring your awareness to your own body, so that you can be really mindful of your own emotions as you listen to their story. And breathe! When children tell us their struggles, it can take us back to situations when we were in the same boat and we can become emotionally reactive. If these emotions are challenging for us, one of the things that we automatically want to do, as people who care about our young people, is to save them from their suffering, or ‘fix’ them. It’s all too easy to offer suggestions, tell them what they could have done better or tell them what you would have done in their shoes. But mindfulness listening is an amazing skill and an amazing gift to be able to offer another person in struggle. Simply listening and offering empathy (empathetic looks or listening noises are enough sometimes), nodding and offering empathy such as ‘gosh that must have been tough’, or ‘that sounds like a really tricky situation’, can be amazing. What often happens that as you listen (mindfully), the person doing the sharing begins to process what has happened to them, but from a few steps back than when they were earlier in the midst of things (again, resilience), they acknowledge how they felt and more often that not, come up with their own solution to their situation – often a much better solution than the one we would have offered anyway – because it has come from them.
Resilience is often about courage. Courage to be present in the challenging times, take steps into the unknown, do things even though there’s a chance we might fail, be vulnerable, face looking stupid in front of people we care about. This is hard and heavy stuff. As adults how many of us can say we actively seek out and enjoy these situations? These are often challenges that children can face on a daily basis, and we can forget how tough that can be. It’s completely understandable to sometimes get overwhelmed. Courage is a funny thing. It feels uncomfortable when we try it on, we feel vulnerable. But when we look at someone else being courageous, we think they look brave and strong. It’s easy to see why we might think being brave is just not our ‘thing’. We can help children to practise courage by noticing and recognising when they are being brave and acknowledging that it can be hard. When we’re in the middle of something challenging we don’t often feel brave, even though we are being brave. Acknowledging to our kids that being brave can feel scary and that’s OK. Saying ‘I could see you felt afraid / unsure / nervous, but you did that thing anyway and that is a brave thing to do’, enables them to see the challenge that they faced head on… and overcame.
So there you have it. Three actions we can all take to normalise emotions for children, to support their mental and emotional wellbeing and to help them grow into resilient and courageous young people.
Please share if you know others who care about children and their mental health. #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
Jane Bennett teaches yoga and mindfulness to children in Wigan and St Helens in the North West of the UK. She a complete geek when it comes to children, their emotions, the neuroscience of resilience and helping children to become brave and courageous young people. You can find out more by visiting www.sparklingkidsyoga.co.uk/about