R U OK? How to talk to children and teens about their mental health

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

As the nation turns to friends, family and colleagues to ask the question: "R U OK?" clinical psychologist and associate professor Amanda Gordon is reminding parents that it's a question we need to be asking our kids, too. And not just on R U OK day.

"It's not just a one day event with anyone," Ms Gordon, from Sydney-based Armchair Psychology,  says, "but especially with kids and teens." With eight Australians taking their own life every day in Australia, she says it's vital that we start conversations about mental health early - and often. "It's really important that we teach kids from a very early age that feelings are relevant and important and that there's a range of feelings that are okay," she says. "All feelings are okay - and sometimes emotions feel overwhelming - but basically, we'll manage them."

In Australia it is estimated that approximately one in seven children experience mental health difficulties.

According to Ms Gordon, letting our kids know that there's nothing that's "too scary" to talk about, is key. "That's really important for kids," she says. "Normalising feelings - depression, anxiety, worry and concern and saying, 'Together, if you talk to me about what's going on, I promise you we can feel better."

Given kids won't always be ready to talk, what should parents be looking out for if they're concerned their child might be struggling with their mental health?

"If a child is withdrawn and won't talk with you about things when they normally can - then the message has to be 'there's nothing so bad that we can't talk about it," Ms Gordon says, adding that parents should reiterate that they're available to talk even if it's in the middle of the night.

Parents should also watch for changes in appetite and sleep, particularly sleeplessness or restlessness. And not wanting to get up is also a red flag. "Not wanting to get up and go to school is really a scary thing," Ms Gordon says. "I know lots of kids say that they don't like school but most, unless there's something that's really worrying them, are prepared to get up and go."

Not wanting friends to come over or refusing to have play dates can also be a sign of bullying, Ms Gordon explains, noting that parents should also speak to their child's teacher if they're concerned. "You'll often find a child's behaviour has changed at school," she says, adding that teachers might notice a failure to hand in homework, not being engaged in class or sitting away from their friends.

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When it comes to teenagers, Ms Gordon notes that it can be a little more challenging. "It's hard with teenagers because we all know they're moody and they fall out with friends anyway," she says. However, if they're not engaging with friends or withdrawing from companionship altogether, then it might be cause for concern. 

Changes in behaviour might also be a sign that's something wrong. "Most households have basic forms of respect for each other that are expected in terms of the way people behave towards each other," she says. As such, if you find that your teen is withdrawing and being disrespectful talk to them about it.

"Ask them 'Are you okay?'" she says. "This is so unlike you. It's not the way we behave at home. Are you feeling sad about something? Take it upon yourself to talk them - don't just assume it's a naughty teenager." 

And while some teens will be comfortable talking to their parents, Ms Gordon says others will want to see a professional. "You'd be amazed how often teens tell their parents they want to see a psychologist. So you might want to say, 'if you don't want to talk to me and there are things you want to talk about, there are people who are professionals who can help you. Would you like me to organise that?'"

Ms Gordon notes that the goal isn't to pathologise our children. "It's not that we've got all these horribly anxious and depressed kids," she says, "but we do have eight people a day killing themselves in Australia - and many are young.  It's because they don't get it, in the moment that they kill themselves, that it's not hopeless, that there is hope, and that there are people who want to talk to them."

Connectedness, she says, is the key to good mental health. "That's why R U OK day makes sense. Because the more you connect and talk about feelings and make it safe to have a feeling, the better the mental health of the nation is going to be."

But there is a caveat.

"It needs to be face-to-face connection," Ms Gordon notes. "Not just having followers on Instagram or Facebook." And modelling authentic, real-word connection and relationships is something else parents can help with.

"Just as we tell adults to have date night - have a date with your kid," she says. "It doesn't have to mean spending money on a coffee or even leaving the home. 5pm monday, 3pm Saturday - it's you and me kid. It's time that belongs to that child."

For Ms Gordon it's important that parents understand that they're not alone, if they're concerned about their kids' mental health. "Talk to the school, see your GP for a referral to a psychologist. Don't feel you have to do it on your own," she says. "Nowhere is it written that we live in a vacuum where we have to do it on our own. We can share and work together."

To find a psychologist visit The Australian Psychological Society

Find more information about R U OK day here

 Lifeline  13 11 14 

Kids Helpline  1800 55 1800