Panic is a real emotion. It makes you feel as slick as an oil spill and as untethered as a kite on a stormy day. But as a child, you don’t understand that. You don’t know it’s normal to feel unhappy sometimes, you don’t know how to differentiate fears from reality. All you know is the walls are caving in. Sometimes, it’s tough for even the most earnest of parents to catch. The key, say experts, is to start talking about feelings early.
When 19-year-old Rupa’s mother found the note, she was startled. She knew something was wrong with her teenager, but couldn’t quite put her finger on it. The document – a letter from the doctor talking about suicidal ideation – caught her unawares. Fortunately, both mum and daughter were on the same page – the goal was to get better; to talk about it, to get support. “My mum was really sweet about it – she told me that we’d find the financial resources we needed to deal with it,” she tells Gulf News. “It really put me at ease.”
Rupa isn’t alone in feeling depressed. As per World Health Organisation 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression. And according to a 2020 Arab Youth Survey, 38 per cent of young Arabs said they knew someone who has mental health issues - a 7 per cent increase compared to 2019. These numbers have only gone up since COVID-19 hit.
It’s happening across the world. And we need to talk about it, say experts. Yet so far, it’s still a taboo subject. “It’s hard to say your child is on medication – it’s a taboo subject. But when I confide in some other parents, they say, ‘oh, yes, mine too’,” explains Lina, whose first-born is on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication as well as anti-depressants.
But while talking to peers is tough, sometimes it’s talking about it at home that’s more difficult.
What is mental health?
“Mental health includes our psychological, emotional, and social well-being. It has an impact on how we feel, think, and act as we cope with life. How we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices is also affected by our mental health,” says Dina Dimitriou, Coaching Psychologist and author of the book 'Are You Parenting The Adult Of The Future: A Practical Guide of 7 Life Skills Of The Future To Prepare Your Teenage And Child’.
Sneha John, Clinical Psychologist, Camali Clinic, Child and Adult Mental Health, explains that conversations need to be tailored to age.
John explains, when a child is between the ages of four and six, they are still learning to understand themselves and their facial expressions. “Just as they learn shapes and colours, parents should also teach them about feelings. This can be done through storybooks, cartoons and games.
“You can also teach a child how to read visual cues – what happens you are happy or sad – using charts,” says John.
At the ages of 7 to10, a child’s world is expanding and with it lingual expression. “One can teach them words such as ‘stress’ and ‘sad’, and have conversations about their meaning and what situations make the children feel like this. But it needs to be done strategically – as a follow up to the ‘how was your day?’ conversation, to make discussing emotion a normal part of daily life.
Model behaviour you want them to emulate. If they see you dealing with a stressful situation in a calm way, they will learn how to deal with things calmly as well
“Also introduce them to storybooks about ‘mental health’ – this can be really helpful,” she says.
When it comes to the teenage years, it’s important for parents to befriend their kids. If there’s worrying behaviour afoot, talk about what’s caused it and why.
Show, don’t tell them how to act
Children learn through observation. “Model behaviour you want them to emulate. If they see you dealing with a stressful situation in a calm way, they will learn how to deal with things calmly as well,” says John.
Take things a step further by modelling self-care – show them that it’s ok to take time out for yourself and do things that you love; it’ll help the lesson sink in and you’ll feel better for it.
Show them that you are just like them. Anyone can have a bad day – and that includes you. “Talk to your children about your emotions, to show them it’s okay for them to talk about theirs,” she says.
Dimitriou says offer your child some practical advice. “Discuss with your child a few techniques that can help when they feel stressed like breathing exercises or how to take care of their everyday mental wellbeing. Some examples include listening to music, asking for help, journaling, practising gratitude, painting, spending time with friends, etc. A very big part of this is modelling positive mental health habits as a parent so always make sure to take care of your mental health too,” she says.
Validation is key
Everyone wants to be heard – especially your little one. “Validate their feelings. Reflect on what they are saying and reply with, ‘Okay, I hear you’,” suggest John.
But don’t allow him/her to slump into victimhood. “Sometimes, you must play guide and offer solutions and at other times, just talk to them as they come to a conclusion/resolution on their own,” she adds.
Time-outs are important
If there are frequent tantrums, it’s important to take a short break and once the child has calmed down, to address the problem.
Pay attention to school reports – they can be part of the solution
Lina says her oldest child was misdiagnosed the first time she met a therapist – she was told the distracted behaviour, the acting out was all just a phase, a part of puberty. It was the child’s school that recognised the signs of ADHD, stepped in and insisted on an assessment. The result showed clearly that she had ADHD and was suffering from depression. “You know, my first concern was also that the child is very young. But then we realised medication would help her,” she says. It’s calmed her down, Lina says, and the therapy “gave her tools on how to deal with her feelings, her anxiety,” she adds.
Now, a year-and-a-half later, the teen is being weaned off the anti-depressants. She will continue with the ADHD pills.
The normalisation of conversation helped when Lina’s youngest daughter developed Emetophobia, or the fear of someone vomiting. When the anxiety of someone throwing up overwhelms her, she cries and screams about not going to school. Therapy has helped – so has the ‘Worry Monster’.
Back in July, this solution was employed by a nurse from Wales in the UK. While initially it worked like a charm, one day the mum came back to a note stuffed in the monster that said, ‘I’m afraid you’ll come alive and eat me.’ The undeterred mum penned a clever response, which she shared on social media. Nerys Beames was quoted on Mirror as saying: “"I realised that if Aled was that frightened of him, he would've called for me to remove it and he certainly wouldn't have been able to go to sleep with it there.
"I wrote a little note back saying: 'I don't like eating children - they taste like smelly feet and give me a bad tummy. I much prefer eating worries. It's a healthier lifestyle for me.'
"Worry Monster will be staying for the foreseeable.
“All we can do is talk to her about it, reassure her and tell her it won’t happen and even if it does, it’ll be ok; it’s normal, natural and can be dealt with,” says Lina.
“The mind of a child, they can grasp the concept but the fear is irrational – sometimes it takes a while to get over it. So we talk and talk and talk. It’s been three years of us dealing with this – we hope it will eventually go away because it is tough on her and on the family,” she says.
Discuss with your child a few techniques that can help when they feel stressed like breathing exercises or how to take care of their everyday mental wellbeing.
Talk to the school
Lina explains: “Here, it’s especially difficult because you are living away from your family, friends. And access to a good psychologist-psychiatrist is hard – there are long waiting lists and logistically, it’s very very tough. Plus, it’s quite expensive – just a consultation can cost Dh800.
“Because of all this pressure, parents must also take care of their own health.
“Schools are pretty helpful, but there needs to be a system where parents, doctors and schools are on the same page to manage a child’s issues,” she adds.
The important thing is, agree experts, for parents to keep an eye on distressing behaviour – and getting help as soon as possible. Dimitriou says: “As a parent you have the responsibility of observing any worrying changes in your child’s behaviour like not socialising or refusing to eat, not finding joy in anything they do or if they are suddenly struggling in school. If you think they need specialised support then ask for help, there is no shame in doing that. On the contrary, is the best thing you can do for them.”
In Rupa’s case, this helped her not only talk about her feelings but also get the help she needed.
*The names have been changed upon request.
Have a topic you'd like us to cover? Write in to us at firstname.lastname@example.org