When it comes to kids and mental health, it might seem like a serious conversation. But turn that on its head, and you’ve got an experience you might all enjoy.
Mental health means emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, and act. It determines how we handle stress, relate to other people, and make decisions. And it’s important for everyone, at every stage of life—starting in very early childhood. But it may not be something your parents ever discussed with you. So how do you know what to say?
As parents, we want our kids to be happy, and it makes sense that we try to keep them that way. But as they navigate life’s challenges, changes, and disappointments, we should keep in mind that they’re also learning the importance—and the value—of tough-to-process feelings that might seem mostly negative.
Should you just sit down with your kids and announce that you’d like to talk about feelings? We can’t say it won’t work, but if you’re looking for more entertaining options, we have a few to suggest.
Kids are natural lovers of stories, whether in books, cartoons, or movies. And stories are an ideal way to start talking to kids about what feelings are, and why they’re important.
For very young kids, My Many Colored Days by Doctor Seuss explores the range of emotions we all feel through color and animals, two subjects that preschoolers find naturally fascinating. On orange days, the narrator explains, “I’m a circus seal!” But on green days: “Deep, deep in the sea. Cool and quiet fish. That’s me.” The book naturally invites questions: “What color do you feel today?” or “What does blue feel like to you?” There are no right or wrong answers, and your child’s insights may surprise you.
In the Pixar movie Inside Out, feelings have the starring roles. The main characters are the five emotional moods of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Their names are Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness. Riley’s world is upside-down since her parents moved the family to a new home in San Francisco.
Riley’s emotions, led by Joy, try to guide her through this difficult, life-changing event. However, the stress of the move has brought Sadness to the forefront. Without really meaning to, Sadness is starting to color all of Riley’s happiest core memories. To complicate matters, Joy doesn’t really see the worth in Sadness. But when Joy and Sadness get stranded together in the depths of Riley's mind, Joy finds that Sadness has an important part to play.
There are scenes that show clearly how even a happy and secure life contains moments of loss. Sadness helps Riley to understand and process the changes she’s experiencing internally, due to changes she’s dealing with externally. But because Riley learns to cope with these losses, the movie’s ending is ultimately a happy one.
After watching the movie, ask questions. What feelings has your child experienced? When were they experienced most strongly? And what makes even difficult feelings important players on the emotional team?
Games are another great way to explore feelings and start conversations. One classic that works well with younger kids is Candyland. Since spaces are designated by color, it’s easy to adapt the game to talk about feelings. For example, when the player lands on red, he or she could answer a question about anger: What makes you angry? What do you do when you’re angry? How do you know when someone else is angry? And so on. Again, there are no right or wrong answers here. The important thing is to start the conversation.
Speaking of anger: It can be one of the toughest for kids—and parents—to talk about constructively. At Families First, we sometimes use a card game called Mad Dragon to work with kids and families specifically on anger. Played similarly to UNO, the game helps kids and their families understand what anger feels like and looks like. It helps players express their feelings, spot anger cues, and understand that they have choices.
Kids experience a lot of stress, and it’s important that kids learn how to deal with those stressful moments without escalating the situation. Of course, it’s better to have this conversation when you’re not both totally stressed out. Pick a time when stress is under discussion, but in which you still seem to be able to hear one another.
Use balloons to get the conversation started. Have the children imagine their overall stress or anger as a balloon. Explain that every time you add to the balloon, it gets a little bigger, and it gets a little closer to bursting. They don’t want the balloon to burst, so if it seems to be getting too full of stress or anger, they just need to let a little of it out. It’s an analogy that helps kids understand that it’s okay to have negative feelings, but that they don’t need to let it build and build.
How can kids let stress and other powerful emotions out?
• Deep, conscious breathing. Breathe in for a 4 count, hold for a 3 count, and let it out for a 5 count.
• Coloring pages. When kids can really focus on something else, especially something basic, it gives them a break from the more complicated thoughts and feelings that they may be struggling with.
• Go for a walk or get some exercise. This is not just a stress outlet. Exercise helps to release natural stress-fighting chemicals called endorphins.
Find More Parenting Tips Through Families First
Parents and caregivers who want help with mental health questions or other issues can always turn to Families First. Our parenting education programs help parents explore the positive impacts they can make in their kids’ lives. And our Parent Café is a supportive place where parents can share their struggles and their strengths.
If you’d like to take part in one of these programs, or help out, contact us. And we can always use more support for our work to build stronger families, more resilient individuals, and more optimistic futures.
Content provided by Chandas Smith, MA, LMHCA, NCC