This is Children’s Mental Health Week and the theme is ‘Express yourself’. There will be people expressing themselves about all sorts of issues. Some will talk about reducing the stigma of mental health, others will focus on raising awareness, some will use this week to air their views about funding the sector properly. Many people will be expressing their feelings about our year of national trauma and the need to take our mental health and wellbeing seriously so that we can process the adversity we have all experienced.

I think we accept as true, the idea that children and young people should be encouraged to express themselves, as well as adults. This is important to give them equality. It is important from a safeguarding perspective. It is also right at the heart of mental health thinking. We want to encourage children to understand their emotions, to be able to name and identify their emotions and also to explain those emotions to the right people.

We also want adults to allow children the time and space to express themselves.

In an ideal world, we would provide the type of emotionally intelligent response that sees the emotion and need behind the behaviour and assists the child in recognizing and accepting their emotions.

Families who have an understanding of therapeutic parenting are particularly clued up on this idea. Every day they use PACE (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy) towards themselves, their children and those around them. The idea is that this will build a foundation for a child to develop compassion towards themselves and to have safe relationships within which they can express themselves.

However, let’s be brutally honest, it’s very hard to be open to someone else’s feelings all of the time. Sometimes we are busy, sometimes we are stressed, sometimes we are not quite in tune with the other person. This can make a parent feel very guilty, especially when they value their child’s emotional health and are striving to be therapeutic parents. None of us want to fail our children. Ever. 

And this is where peers support comes in. We are more able to help our children express themselves when we too have people to turn to, with whom we can express ourselves safely. “I just felt so tired.” “I’m not sure I am getting it right.” “I am constantly juggling.” “It feels like I am walking on eggshells.” These are all things that can be said to a peer supporter, who will relate, who will empathise and will tell you that nobody can get it right all of the time. Nobody. 

What we can aspire to is creating a family where the adults want to hear and the children feel safe to express themselves. That’s the big picture; the foundation of your family.

During this week Adoption UK will be publishing a report about the mental health of adopted young people. In AUK’s survey of adopted young people and adults last year, 68% of respondents had sought help for their mental health. The things adopted children experience in their early years can cast shadows that last a lifetime. Allowing these children to express their emotions about their trauma, safely, is a crucial part of shoring up better mental health. That takes better understanding amongst teachers, social services and other frontline professionals, and better support for families. And experience tells us that what works well for adopted children tends to work well for all children. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from investing in our children’s ability to express themselves.

Author: Eleanor Haworth, Director of Service Delivery, Adoption UK