Learning about our mental health takes years of experience, so it’s worrying to think that so many of our kids face mental health challenges every single day. It’s even more worrying to know that suicide is the leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-old Australians.
International speaker and best-selling author Dr Dain Heer has worked closely with children aged six to 18, visiting schools to help kids overcome the very mental health challenges he too faced – including deep depression and persistent suicidal thoughts.
“In my experience, almost all of us will face mental health issues at some point in our lives,” says Dain. “We need to empower children from a young age to ensure they truly believe they are enough and their differences are their strength.”
Dain’s message of self-empowerment is an attempt to overcome two of the biggest mental health triggers he has identified for children and teens: friends, and online bullying. Feeling alone or like they don’t fit in or have anyone to talk to are among the most common reasons teens commit suicide, Dain says, but positive and consistent communication can make all the difference – and it all starts with a question.
“Opening the lines of communication is as simple as asking questions and being interested in the answers that come back,” says Dain. “Get over any idea of being right and any idea of making your child wrong – this can be destructive to their sense of self.
“It’s also important to avoid judgement, both of your kids and of yourself. It’s interesting – usually, it’s the things we have done ourselves that we judge our kids for the most! Ask them questions rather than talking at them, and they will learn that they can come to you for anything.”
If you’re stuck for positive conversation starters, try:
- “How are you doing?”
- “What went on at school today?”
- “Can we talk about what is going on for you?”
- “I realise I have been stressed about X, Y & Z, and I’m sorry that I haven’t made the time for you – I will do that from now on.”
- “I am here for you and I am grateful that you are my child. I would love to talk to you if you want.”
If finding the right time or place to have the initial conversation is challenging, you could also consider writing them a note and leaving it in their lunchbox or on their pillow. Do that for three or four days, Dain says, and you’ll both start to see changes.
“I implore parents to genuinely put themselves in their children’s shoes and realise that they won’t want to talk about anything if you have already judged them for it,” says Dain. “On the other hand, if your kids are judging themselves for something that you are not in judgement of, they will want to get it off their chest because they know they can do so safely.”
As parents, it’s also our job to look out for signs that our children may be facing more serious mental health concerns. Withdrawal, outbursts of anger or tears for no reason, and inappropriate reactions to criticism are just a few things to watch and, in some cases, seek professional help for.
“In older kids, withdrawal seems to manifest as not wanting to spend time with the family or with you, the parent,” says Dain. “Additionally, if you raise an issue with them – for example, asking why they haven’t taken out the rubbish – and they have an exaggerated reaction, that is usually a sign that something else is going on for them.
“If they show dynamic anger or are in a dark place, you need to get professional help. Organisations like Beyond Blue and Headspace, and of course professional counsellors, are there to help both of you let out what is going on in your head, creating space to communicate better.”
You may also want to consider reaching out to your child’s school to see what they have in place to support students and their families.
“My biggest message to parents is to strive to not to not only be a friend to your kids, but a source of inspiration,” says Dain. “This includes being open about our own struggles and not judging yourself harshly – remember that thinking you are a bad parent does nothing but separate you from your children.”
Building stronger relationships with our kids – relationships they can lean on when they face their own challenges – takes time, so don’t judge yourself or your children if you don’t see immediate change.
“Start communicating now,” says Dain. “Over time, you will start to see a more open, happier child – a child who knows that you are someone they can tell anything to. A child who knows that, no matter what happens, they are not alone.”
To hear more from Dr Dain Heer, head to www.accessconsciousness.com/youarenotalone.