Staying up to date with our children’s mental health and how they are feeling is arguably one of the most difficult and important aspects of parenthood.
Whether it’s finding the time between school and work, having to compete with technology for their attention, or dealing with the emotional complexities of modern life on top of the stress of being in a pandemic, having real conversations about their feelings and mental health can be difficult to fit in.
Staying in touch with their feelings doesn’t just help us guide our young ones through the various struggles they will face; they can give us accurate insights into their growth as human characters, their hopes, aspirations, and overall mental health.
We don’t have to be certified child psychologists to communicate and stay in touch with our children’s feelings, either. It is accomplished by creating a genuine and safe environment and being honest about themselves, and sharing what they are thinking with us.
Below, I have compiled a shortlist of questions and useful tactics that parents can bring to the table when trying to learn what their child is thinking and feeling. Everyone has ups and downs, and as parents, we need to be there as much as we can to guide our kids through emotional roller coasters. The trick is learning when they are just having a bad day as we all do, or if there is something deeper that we need to look into since they normally won’t tell the difference.
Staying in touch with their day-to-day life
Whether it’s because of our work, our children’s after school activities, or any other commitments and responsibilities, the first area for staying in touch with our kid’s emotions and feelings is checking on their day-to-day life.
Powerofpositivity.com lists several important questions parents need to be asking their children; the most important ones being:
- What’s something fun that you did today?
- What happened at school today?
- What’s something new/exciting that you learned today?
By starting with an innocent, positive question, we can see if that positivity is reflected in our child’s response through their enthusiasm, excitement, and general demeanor. They could have had a relatively boring day or even a bad one, and they will hopefully say so, but it’s important to look at how they say it and what they say.
It can be confusing and difficult for children to understand where their feelings are coming from, so part of our job of staying in touch with their feelings and mental health involves helping them find out the causes of their feelings.
Negative emotions logically arise from having a bad day. Still, if these emotions are based on negative perceptions of themselves, like feeling inadequate or “useless,” further investigation will be required.
Understanding where their feelings come from
- What makes you think that?
- What are some reasons for that?
There are many times when kids come home feeling down about not being popular or feeling that they can’t do anything right and are inadequate.
According to the Huffington Post, asking them what reasons they are basing those reactions and feelings on can shed a huge amount of light on how they are feeling deep down about themselves. Often, their reactions to real-world things such as failure or a lack of experience in something directly interacts with deep-seated beliefs about themselves. It could be that they are down because they genuinely didn’t do well that particular day, but low self-esteem and low confidence can make what was a mundane day feel like a failure as well.
Encouraging them to analyze why they feel negative gives us an opportunity as parents to coach them and challenge unrealistic and damaging beliefs they might hold about themselves.
- What do you think?
A way of challenging deep-seated beliefs is to ask kids what they really think about themselves in a challenging situation. This is best done after outlining that they may be being too hard on themselves and that the evidence for their feelings suggests that they did not fail and that they are, in fact, just as good as the other kids they interact with.
Inviting their opinion into the conversation gives them a voice, which, when combined with an understanding of how they feel, can boost positive feelings about themselves while also telling us if they feel any better.
Creating an environment for talking about feelings and mental health
- How are you feeling after all of that?
- Do you feel sad? Angry?
- Do you want to talk about it with me?
- Do you want to know how I felt when…?
If you are aware that something upsetting has happened, either by witnessing it yourself or being informed by someone else, it’s always good to ask if they feel sad or angry. This allows them to express how they feel genuinely, whether by crying, or letting the anger out, so long as it’s not violently directed at others. This also helps us to gauge how they really feel after something has happened.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but our children can subconsciously bottle up negative emotions if they are not shown how to voice what they feel healthy. Sitting down and helping them verbalize things like loss, grief, frustration, anger, and more serve multiple purposes.
First of all, it gives them a pathway to let the emotions out. Secondly, it builds on the relationship you have with them as an emotionally confident person and as someone, they can be open with. And thirdly, it keeps us in touch with how they are coping with monitoring their mental wellness.
Don’t forget to be a role model and show them how to express themselves. If you are affected by the same thing, like the loss of someone, or have experienced something similar in the past to what your child is going through, be open with them about how you felt, what it was like, and how you got through it. Invite them to ask about your experience, and don’t be afraid to grieve in front of them because it shows that it’s okay to talk about difficult topics.
Returning to school during the pandemic
- Are you excited to see your friends at school again?
- What do you think of the changes at school? Do you know why it’s like that?
- Do you prefer the way school is now? Or how was it before? Why?
With all of the disruptions to regular life, many children will find returning to school exciting while others are going to experience anxiety and even fear.
Learning online from home for months means that our kids may have become accustomed to learning in their home environment instead of an outside environment where they have less control, which can create anxiety regardless of whether they are worrying about COVID-19 or not.
Initiating a conversation on their feelings about returning to school is a great way to understand their perspective regarding the entire experience. As parents, we can then address any concerns and reassure them.
UNICEF’s tips for helping young ones through the return to school process are a great resource, reminding us that we need to be honest with our children about the changes they are facing as parents. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) may make them feel nervous along with social distancing rules, and it’s important to remain empathetic to their feelings while explaining why these things are important.
Another strategy is to ask them to find their favorite PPE, face mask, or going back to school song on YouTube that everyone can learn and sing to create a more relaxed environment.
Asking how they feel physically
- Have you been sleeping well?
- Do you feel tired?
- Have you been getting any tummy aches or headaches?
- Were you able to eat all of your breakfast/lunch/dinners?
- Do you find it hard to relax?
Although these don’t always signal mental distress in children, physical problems can often be symptoms of deeper psychological stressors linked to anxiety, fear, and sadness. Monitoring their appetite, quality of sleep, and physical well-being can provide great clues to how our little ones are doing emotionally.
Worrying at night may cause them to stay awake, develop night terrors, and even wet the bed. Anxiety can take away their hunger or cause other nervous behaviors like nail-biting, hair twisting, and thumb sucking.
Although having many other causes, eczema can also be brought on in times of stress, so identifying these physical symptoms can prompt us as parents to ask if there is anything that they are worried about or to consider seeing a specialist.
Checking on their goals and interests
- Are you enjoying X? (dance practice, sport, learning music, drawing, any of their current interests)
- What’s your favorite thing about X?
- What do you think is your best skill when doing X?
- Why aren’t you enjoying X?
- What’s something new, you’d like to learn?
A great source of self-confidence is the interests and activities that our kids get involved in, whether it’s playing soccer, dancing, drawing, music, or anything else.
By regularly checking in on their interests and the goals associated with learning something they enjoy, we also get a glimpse at how they feel when in a fun setting, which they have repetitively enjoyed. This is the best environment for supporting and growing their confidence, and changes in behavior and passion for their interests can also hint at emotional changes within them.
Signs of fear and low confidence can present signs like a growing lack of excitement for their preferred activity, refusing to take part in something that was once really exciting, disobedience and aggression towards others, temper tantrums, and irritability.
If they are experiencing emotional problems and are feeling down regarding one of their interests, then we can help with regular praise and encouragement to overcome temporary lapses in motivation and set realistic goals that give them a sense of accomplishment.
If they are fed up with an activity, then encouraging them to find something new that they enjoy doing can have huge effects on their mental health. Still, if the problem is lasting, then there could be something else affecting their mental health, which is only natural as kids grow up.
If the source of the problem can’t be identified at home, school, or other areas of their life, then a doctor’s visit may help find a solution.