Children’s mental health starts with adults

COVID19 has meant that the topic of mental health is now firmly embedded in our community conversation. But, we still see mental health only through an adult lens. We rarely pause to consider how children know and experience their mental health. Because it is not the same as the way adults do. Dr Joe Tucci explains further.

This article was written by Dr Joe Tucci, psychologist and social worker and the CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation.

A Spoonville in Richmond. Picture: A.Weller

When children see painted wooden spoons appearing in a garden bed in their neighbourhood, they stop and point to them. For them, they are not just wooden spoons. They see them as little people. Spoonville is a community. They are magical. How did they get there? Which one of them are friends? Do they come alive at night when everyone is asleep? What do they like to talk about? Can they visit each other?

Children think differently to adults. They experience the world differently to grown-ups.

That is why we should not fall into the trap of thinking that mental health means the same for children as it does for adults. It doesn’t. We need to really step into children’s ways of knowing and doing to be able to understand when things are not right for them.

COVID19 has meant that the topic of mental health is now firmly embedded in our community conversation. We are more able to talk about it without stigma. We have come to recognise that our mental health is as important as our physical health. We know we have to put into practice strategies that maintain positive mental health, like good sleep routines, healthy diets, regular exercise. Most of all, because of COVID19, we are aware more than ever before that being able to enjoy relationships makes all the difference to the way we feel about ourselves and our world.

Children's mental healthBut, we still see mental health only through an adult lens. We rarely pause to consider how children know and experience their mental health. Because it is not the same as the way adults do.

Children generally don’t talk about depression or anxiety. Children feel scared and worried. Sometimes they worry so much that it stops them from playing sport, or having a sleepover at a friend’s house.

They don’t know that they may be suffering from a mood disorder. Children feel sad. They do not always know why. They do not always know what makes them feel happier.

Children don’t see themselves as having a social phobia. They feel like they don’t fit in. They feel like they have no friends. They feel like other children at school will not play with them. They experience the sting of rejection and find it easier to withdraw. They pass up opportunities to participate in activities with other children because it feels too hard.

They certainly don’t see themselves as having Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder. They sometimes show the distress that is deep inside them in their behaviour, because that is the only way they are capable of communicating it. They can break things. They can hit their siblings. They can tip things over, yell and walk away. They can get so wound up and angry that they fall in a heap and sob.

Sometimes children can hold onto so much pain inside themselves that they stop showing any feeling at all.

Sometimes children can hold onto so much pain inside themselves that they stop showing any feeling at all. They bottle it up. They keep adults at a distance. And then when they can’t contain it any longer, they have to release it. They hurt themselves with cigarette lighters or razor blades. They stop going to school. They run away from the people who are trying to look after them.

And as they get a little older and become adolescents, some of those defences stop working. They still are filled with an intensity of feeling alone. They feel like no one is there to stand beside them as they go through their lives. They start drinking alcohol. They start experimenting with drugs. These substances dull the complex feelings that are bubbling up in them all the time. The drugs take hold and they need to keep using them. They need money so they steal. Dangerous adults use money and the promise of drugs to abuse and exploit them. These young people sleep on the streets. They are too young, but they do it anyway. They have to stay on the move. They don’t want their feelings to catch up with them.

Experiences of violence compromise children’s mental health. They make children feel unsafe. They introduce threat into their lives. Children jump at small signs that a fight is on its way, or violence is about to visit them. These children are always on guard.

Children’s positive mental health starts with the adults around them.

Children’s positive mental health starts with the adults around them. We need to help them feel safe. We need to help them make sense of their feelings. We need to acknowledge that childhood can have unseen holes that children slip down into. We need to make sure that we always have their back.

There is no point believing that positive mental health is so important and then turning our back on the children and young people who are in trouble, who are struggling but demonstrating their vulnerability in ways that are difficult or challenging. They most of all need our compassion.

A wooden spoon has become a symbol for adults to share in the delight of being a child. It is also a reminder to stop labelling children’s mental health with words that make more sense to adults but don’t really make any difference for children. Children’s positive mental health starts with adults caring enough to see that a spoon is not really a spoon.

Children's Mental Health
Spoonville Heathmont. Image Source: Reddit