Young people dealing with mental health issues is not something new. As an educator for over 40 years, I can recall (with the benefit of hindsight) many students over the years who were dealing, with varying levels of success, with a wide range of mental health conditions. The problem was, until recently, there was a lack of recognition by parents, teachers, and even health care professionals that these were issues that affected young people. This resulted in a lack of appropriate resources to assist these students, as well as a lack of reading materials which reflected their struggles.
Our children, whether they are in our class or our family, need our time and attention. They need to know we care about their best interests, and that we will always have time for them if they need to talk about something that is concerning them. This may seem obvious but, without meaning to, parents can often be so busy with everyday family life issues that they can become blinded to the needs of their children as individuals. Make time for your child every day. Ask them about their day. Have there been any challenges (perhaps sharing a challenge you have had in your day to encourage them to see that openness is valued in the family), have there been any successes worth celebrating, and what are they looking forward to tomorrow?
It is important to remember that celebrating success does not have to mean a focus on grades. Our children and our students should never be compared to each other. Everyone has different talents, and praise should be given for working hard and putting in their best effort. This will lead to a healthy self-esteem, which is essential for positive mental health. These are the things to focus on, and if grades are slipping it is important to find out why. Talk to your child. Talk to their teacher. Offer support and seek help if there is a problem.
“Why did you do that?” This is an important question to ask children when they behave in a way that is out of character. Teachers, principals, and parents need to be alert to a change in typical behavior. Seek answers about why this happened, and don’t accept a shrug of the shoulders in response to your questions. Speak with your child’s Guidance Counsellor if necessary to get to the root of the problem. It is important for children to know that it is okay to feel anger, frustration, and other negative feelings, but it is so important to talk about why they are feeling this way. Be that person your child can talk to.
It is also incredibly important for children to have strong relationships with both family and friends. Learning to form friendships, as well as to work together with classmates who are not friends, are both important life skills. Developing the ability to work through the inevitable conflicts within these relationships will allow children to develop positive conflict resolution strategies, rather than to allow these situations to be the cause of withdrawing from social situations. Be aware of your child’s relationships, particularly when there are changes evident.
The global COVID-19 pandemic, and the stresses which have been created and magnified by it, has thrown a spotlight on the issues of the mental health of our young people. The pandemic has changed our world. Much of this change has been negative. However, by highlighting how much our pre-teens and teens are struggling in many ways it is possible, I believe, to bring a positive twist to this situation. As parents and educators, we have been made more aware of their struggles. The conversation has begun. How can we help? How can we model to our pre-teens and teens that there is a way forward? How can we show them that they are not alone, and that asking for help has positive results?
As an educator I know how important it is for students to be able to see themselves in literature. By writing Mermaid Tears, an upcoming middle-grade novel which addresses the topic of mental health in children of that age, I hope to be able to reach out to the readers who are suffering, and to show them that there is a way forward. Other books I have recommended to students in the past include Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, and Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. Seeing how other children, even those who live in fictional worlds, have dealt with mental health issues, healed, and moved forward with their lives is an important step in overcoming obstacles.