“Are you okay?” How to talk to kids about mental health, staying well and asking for help
Maintaining good mental health isn’t always easy, but right now it might feel especially hard for the whole family. Linda Opie, head of Health and Wellbeing at HCF, Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central and director of Developing Minds Psychology, and Brigid Walsh, national wellbeing manager at Netball Australia share their strategies to help start those important conversations with your kids.
Managing social distancing, stress around work and school, and general uncertainty about the future can all lead to feelings of sadness or anxiety.
While we may think young children are shielded from many of these concerns, it’s essential to recognise they’re also experiencing the fallout from COVID-19, and that could impact how happy, safe and secure they feel.
So how can we know when our child might be struggling? And if we feel out of our depth, where can we go for guidance?
What does mental wellbeing mean for children?
Mental wellbeing in children relies on a number of factors.
“For children aged 5–10, a sense of connection is the building block from which good mental health emerges, particularly connection with a primary caregiver,” says Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central, a support service for parents and children aged 4–11, and a partner of HCF.
“Children need to feel safe, understood, and cared for. There are many ways that families can communicate to a child that they’re safe and loved, and that we appreciate them and are interested in them. There are also many ways that this can be undermined.”
As well as loving and supportive relationships at home, other factors that contribute to a child’s overall sense of wellbeing include connection to the community, physical activity and even good eating habits.
Brigid Walsh, national wellbeing manager at Netball Australia, agrees, saying team sports aren’t only about creating a healthy level of fitness.
“Netball is a great de-stressor for kids. They’re so immersed in what they’re doing, the task at hand, they don’t have time to think about their worries.”
Team sports like netball can also help children to feel happier biologically. “When playing a physical sport, you release endorphins, but other ‘feel-good’ hormones like oxytocin and serotonin are also released through connection with people, or when you do something kind for, say, a teammate or your coach.” Team sports ensure children get a regular dose of these so-called ‘happy hormones’.
How has COVID-19 impacted our children?
Social distancing restrictions put in place to slow the virus removed the bulk of peer and community connection children used to get from school, play and team sports like netball. The suddenness of this and not knowing when normality will resume may have created feelings of anxiety, frustration and sadness. Brigid says these are all feelings that Netball Australia saw in their elite players when the new season was postponed.
“COVID-19 hit at almost the exact time players were ready to go back to play and compete. It was a huge shock. At first, we saw a whole range of emotions: some took it in their stride, however, most were disappointed, sad, angry and/or anxious. Then came a level of acceptance, and a feeling of ‘What can we do to help?’”
Signs of sadness or struggle
Signs a child may be feeling sad or anxious can be subtle, says Linda Opie, head of Health and Wellbeing at HCF. “Perhaps your chatterbox child is a bit quiet or doesn’t seem to laugh as much. Small things that wouldn’t normally bother a child could have them in floods of tears. Changes in sleeping or eating patterns might also indicate they’re not feeling themselves.”
But, some children may have accepted the new normal without too many issues, says Kirrilie. “Trust your instincts. If you feel like your child is struggling, you’re probably right. But don’t assume there must be concerns there that you just can’t see – your child may be doing well.”
How to handle the ‘big feelings’
Netball Australia immediately put a task force together to help players handle the changes taking place, says Brigid. With safe spaces in which they can talk about how they’re feeling and their fears and anxieties, the players have felt supported and connected to their team and the sport, even though they haven’t been together.
“The wellbeing task force is made up of critical people who have provided a kind of one-stop-shop around health and wellbeing for players who’ve been at home. Medical officers, the head of strength and conditioning, coaches – all these people have been involved to help players feel supported. Everyone has rallied.”
Just like elite athletes, our children need support and space to talk about how they feel, in a way that helps them to feel safe and understood. “Being available to talk, giving them space to open up or even just getting down on your knees and giving them a big hug are all ways we can let our kids know that it’s okay to feel sad,” says Linda.
How to create a ‘task force’ for your child:
- Ask them to create a list of people they love, trust and enjoy talking to. These people might include you, a sibling, or a grandparent.
- Write down the ways they can communicate with each person, like talking in person, phone, text, FaceTime or writing a letter.
- Put the list somewhere visible so your child is easily reminded of all the people who are there to talk to and help them if they need it.
Getting your child to open up
Children need support and space to talk about how they feel, in a way that helps them to feel safe and understood. Sometimes it’s easier for kids to express their feelings using visual cues. We’ve worked with our experts to design a downloadable emotions character chart, which can help children who struggle to express how they feel using words by using visual cues instead. Start by drawing a range of faces and expressions on a piece of paper, ranging from happy and silly to sad and frustrated, and ask your child to point to two to three of the faces that show how they felt throughout the day.
You can do this at different times of the day and even ask your child to draw more feeling faces. This can be a great way to check in on how young children are feeling.
It’s okay to say “I’m not okay” – and to ask for help
There may come a time when you feel like you can’t provide your child with the kind of support they need. “Everybody can have a bad day – doors are slammed, something is thrown,” says Linda. “But if significant changes in mood and behaviour persist, your child may need personalised support.”
As part of its Mental Health & Wellbeing Support Program, HCF has partnered with Calm Kid Central to give eligible members access to its online educational support service for parents and children aged 4–11.
“Parents don’t always have the answers and may need support when navigating change and uncertainty,” says Linda. “It’s important that they know there’s support available, and reaching out for help when you or your child needs it is a strength. Equally, telling friends that you’re seeking guidance may give them the confidence to do the same.”
As well as providing access to child psychologists who will answer your questions within 48 hours, Calm Kid Central offers courses, video lessons, activities, posters and animations for children, all of which can help them to understand and manage their feelings.
4 things to remember when helping kids cope with big feelings:
- While we may feel that kids are shielded from a lot of change, the uncertainties we feel as adults may make them feel less happy, safe and secure.
- Changes in a child’s behaviour may indicate that they’re missing their friends, school and other social connections.
- Save and use these 5 steps to talk to your child if you think they’re struggling with ‘big feelings’. Let them know you’re there if they want to discuss anything.
- Ask for help if you or your child needs it.
If you feel that you, or your child, need extra support there are resources and experts who can help.
- HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations. The program provides fast and confidential access to a team of experienced child psychologists as well as courses, video lessons, activities and animations to help them understand and better manage their feelings. There are also resources for children who are worried or unsettled by COVID-19.
- Raising Children Network is a government-funded website offering videos, articles and apps for parents to help children of all ages.
- Talk to a GP: during COVID-19 you can book a bulk-billed video appointment through our partner GP2U by calling 1300 472 866 or registering to book an appointment here.
- Call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This free, 24-hour service can provide mental health support and emotional assistance.
Tips for Parents - 5 steps to help young kids share their big feelings
Activity Sheet - Emotions Character Chart
Linda Opie, head of Health and Wellbeing, HCF
Linda is passionate about mental health and spearheaded the implementation of HCF’s new Mental Health and Wellbeing Support Program, including its partnership with Calm Kid Central. Linda has spent more than 17 years creating health and wellness solutions, and as a mum to two young boys, she has both a personal and professional commitment to building a healthier, happier next generation.
Brigid Walsh, national wellbeing manager, Netball Australia
HCF and Netball Australia are both trusted by Aussies, and go above and beyond to put people first. Stepping in to her role at Netball Australia just weeks before the COVID-19 crisis hit Australia, Brigid had a unique start as its first National Wellbeing manager. With a career spanning 20 years and qualifications in applied science, management, health and wellness coaching, and yoga, Brigid is committed to improving the physical and mental health of individuals, workplaces and communities.
Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central and director of Developing Minds Psychology
With more than 24 years of experience as a psychologist, Kirrilie is integral to the team at Calm Kid Central and part of the HCF family. Calm Kid Central supports children aged between 4–11, and their parents, as they cope with ‘big feelings’. A member of the Australian Psychological Society and the College of Clinical Psychologists, Kirrilie provides seminars and training for young people, teachers and health professionals around Australia. She’s also the author of three books for young people.
Words by Kerry McCarthy
Updated October 2021
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