Helping your child make positive connections that support their mental health

It’s Children’s Mental Health Week again. It doesn’t seem possible a year has passed since the previous one; my life seems to be on fast-forward most of the time.

Place2Be has announced that the theme this year is Let’s Connect and is focusing on making meaningful connections. After all, we humans thrive in communities and it’s why they believe this is so very important. I agree, to a point, that community connection is essential, but I think what is missing here is that to thrive, we need to be in communities that understand us, that accept us unconditionally and without judgement.  

A quote I saw on social media that highlights this so succinctly is from ‘OMG I’m autistic AF’

"Why do you need a label?"
Be there is comfort in knowing you are a normal zebra, not a strange horse. Be you can't find community w other zebras if you don't know you belong. And be it is impossible for a zebra to be happy or healthy spending its life feeling like a failed horse

What hope is there?

Thankfully, knowledge is slowly increasing and ignorance is beginning to lessen so there is hope. Social media, I feel, has played a big part in this – connecting people who may not otherwise have been able to. However, as we see very regularly, social media has a darker side too and becomes a platform for cruel unnecessary and unkind behaviour. Trolls and keyboard warriors, determined to use their power to hurt and hate. Last week there was a disgusting video by a high-profile influencer mocking profoundly disabled children. Why? Why do people think this type of behaviour is acceptable? Unbelievably cruel and with no thought or care of the harm they cause to innocent children and their families.

So, connection to the right people and environments is what matters and is what will make a difference to our and our children’s mental health.

Positive connections that work for your child and their mental health

What does that mean though? Does it mean lots of social engagements with like-minded people or people who are similar to ourselves? Well, it could do, if that is what you like.

I believe what is most important is finding out what works for you and for your family. Letting go of what we see as ‘normal’ or ‘traditional’ is a really good start. Accepting that your family or situation needs something different. You can start this by looking at situations that have gone well and find out what it was that helped with that. Was it what you were doing, or who you were with that helped? Was it the time you spent or did the weather make a difference? Were you able to make your own decisions and choices over what you did, who you saw and where you went? Autonomy is often key to whether a situation goes well or not.

A lovely friend of mine said recently ‘Work out what isn’t working, and do the opposite’ (thank you Kate!)

Thriving at school?

Using school is a convenient example of this. School works for a percentage of children (about 30%) and they absolutely thrive, which is great, for them! For some children, it’s a mediocre experience and they manage the 13 years by developing a variety of strategies and resources to get themselves through.

However, for some children school is an absolute disaster and has a lifelong impact on their mental health. Yes, you read that right – a lifelong impact on their mental health. Why though? Well, school is a one-size-fits-all institution and what is missing when it comes to school is autonomy. If you don’t believe me read Naomi Fisher’s book ‘Changing your mind’.  

There is no room for an autonomous education when trying to teach 30+ children in each and every setting. They may have a community and connections but these are not the right ones for a significant number of our children. The difficulty with this is that in our society (capitalism) we need children to go to school so we can work, otherwise the mortgage/rent/bills/public revenue from tax don’t get paid and so the difficulties are perpetuated and continue.

So making connections is a great theme for some children and can be essential, while for others, it’s their worst nightmare. The school environment can be the very reason children withdraw from this.

School avoidance and anxiety rising

Emotionally-based school avoidance is rising and children are beginning to have their voices heard. The children that can’t go to school really are the most courageous children you will ever meet. They are making a stand against a system that they have recognised does not serve them or their psyche. They know themselves and what they need better than any professional. They have no option but to listen to what their body and brain are telling them, but they just don’t have the words/voice or sometimes the support to evidence this. They need to make their connections in a different way, which is equally valid.

The pandemic taught us a lot about what children need educationally and showed children that there are other ways to learn such as online or home education. This is potentially one reason why school avoidance is on the rise. When you show people there is more than one way to do something they were originally struggling with, why wouldn’t they opt for something else?

So, making connections is important if you make the right connections for you. It means you can take your time, you can be choosy and connect with those that are right for you.

How does it feel to you?

What I feel are important things to be aware of are

  • ‘Does is feel right’
  • ‘Am I looking forward to seeing these people’
  • ‘Do I feel good after I have seen them’
  • ‘Do we have things in common’
  • ‘Do I feel heard, present and validated’

If you can answer ‘yes’ to most of these then it sounds like these are the connections worth pursuing. If you are left questioning or feeling relieved when the meet is over, or dread the thought of meeting up then to start off with, it is probably time to reconsider or reconnect elsewhere.

These are essential skills to have later in life too when deciding on who we are as people and what our relationships will be with others. We have to be able to listen to ourselves – our internal voice and not that of the opinion of others.

There are no rules to what connecting looks like either. You might be a once-a-month person, preferring to enjoy your own company at other times, or you might prefer to make connections more often, four or five times a week. You might prefer in-person, or online where you have more control over endings. It is completely your choice and children need to be made aware of this too. We also need to remember that making connections don’t have to be in person either. – plenty of relationships and connections are forged online (as long as your young person is safe

Making the right connections will take time. That’s okay. There is no rush to get it right, you will make errors and giving yourself time means you are valuing yourself and not rushing into things, and that is the most important thing.

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Angela Kelly
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