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R U OK: Mental health conversation starters for kids

Most Australian children know how to look after their physical health. Brush your teeth, drink water, and exercise. Do these things, and chances are, you will protect and strengthen your body. Yet, when it comes to mental health and kids, it’s a bit different. In recognition of R U OK Day, we look at ways to talk to kids about mental health with some helpful conversation starters that will get them talking!

Where to start?

With a conversation about mental health.

It can be brilliant, terrible, somewhere in between and throughout life, we all go through ups and downs.

Alice Peel is a teacher, a co-founder of Grow Your Mind — a social and emotional wellbeing program, a writer, a mother of three kids under 12 years of age and a lover of dogs. She has learnt from delivering thousands of workshops to teachers, parents and primary-aged kids that there are four key ways to have meaningful conversations with your kids. The best part is that as parents and carers we all have what it takes to foster these skills in our children.


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1. The questions you ask matter: conversation starters about mental health with kids.

Shift from asking your kids ‘How was your day?’, where you are sure to get a one-word answer, and instead ask a mix of ridiculous and meaningful open-ended questions. Try these conversation starters:

  • Who were you kind to today?
  • If it could rain food for a day, what food would you choose?
  • Would you rather eat snails for lunch for one day or broccoli for breakfast for a year?
  • If you get sad or lonely, who could you talk to about it?

“If you spot the signs your child might be struggling, don’t forget the power of simply taking a breath, pausing, and asking your child, ‘Are you okay?’” Ms Peel says.

“You don’t have to be a mental health expert to do this. Checking in with people around you and the children in your world, is a way of showing them you genuinely care and that you are someone they can talk to and trust.”

She says it’s okay if your child says, ‘No’.

“Listen and give them your time. It might be just what they need to help them through a difficult period.”

If they need further support, you can help them access professional help and reassure them you’re there with them every step of the way. The important thing is to normalise how they are feeling and keep communication channels open.

Ms Peels says you can use the four R U OK? conversation steps: Ask, Listen, Encourage Action and Check Listen as a guide. For free tips and tools visit the R U OK? website.

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RUOK Day is a reminder to start conversations with your kids


2. Talk to your kids about their emotions and how they work

When kids know different words to name how they’re feeling, it opens communication. It also normalises the big and uncomfortable emotions and gives you as a family a toolkit for helping each other through tricky times. A big part of having meaningful conversations is strengthening your child’s emotional literacy. When kids can name their emotions and understand where they come from, they are more likely to be able to tame the big ones.

Not sure where to start?

“We have a short: Meet the Grow Your Mind Animals animation that introduces the key emotions and brain parts through a playful animal analogy,” Ms Peel says.

She says there is also a Grow Your Mind children’s podcast that shares information on the brain and covers topics such as dealing with disappointment and friendships in an age-appropriate way.

“We have four-year-olds in preschools talking about their ‘guard dog’ barking loudly (their amygdala) and making the link that calming it down helps them make better choices. Share with kids that our brain loves things such as sleep, kindness, water, and exercise.”


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3. Talk to your kids about your own healthy habits

Wellbeing is not a spectator sport. Perhaps you grab some exercise or get out in nature. Let your kids know there are things you do to look after your own wellbeing.

“Before I sit with my animals, I will often announce that, ‘I need to get some good mental health for a bit, so I will be patting the dogs, ’” Ms Peel says.

“We are wired for connection and belonging. Let your kids know about the people you love, value, and communicate with. Let them know when you’ve had an R U OK? conversation with someone and the difference it made to their day. Teach them that conversations matter and can help someone if they’re struggling.”

She says the important thing here is that we cannot expect our own children to nurture and protect their mental health if we aren’t making it a priority for ourselves.


4. Normalise the ups and downs and make space for gratitude

Stuff ups, setbacks, sadness, hurt and failure are a part of life. Let your kids share their hurts and name their big, uncomfortable feelings.

As part of your day, build in a practice of looking for the good. Invite your children to hold up their hands, and on each finger, name one person or thing they feel thankful for. Try out a family gratitude journal or jar. It doesn’t have to be every day, and it should never be forced; otherwise, it will have the reverse effect.

“Remember gratitude is not about denying uncomfortable emotions — this will only erode your capacity for good mental health,” Ms Peel says. “Rather, gratitude is acknowledging the struggles while making space for the good things in life.”

A final word. Keep it playful. Poor mental health is serious; mental health education shouldn’t be. Get outside together, get moving, have a laugh and play together. And remember to ask, ‘R U OK?’

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By Claire Gilligan
WITH A FIFO HUSBAND WHO WORKS AWAY WEEKS AT A TIME, CLAIRE ENJOYS FINDING FUN, LOCAL THINGS TO DO AND PLACES TO VISIT TO OCCUPY HER AND HER TWO GIRLS' TIME. ORIGINALLY FROM SYDNEY, CLAIRE AND HER FAMILY LOVE ALL THE THINGS THE SUNSHINE COAST HAS TO OFFER AND ENJOY SHOWING IT OFF TO VISITING FAMILY AND FRIENDS. Kids on the Coast is a free family magazine whats on guide for Kids: things to do, school holiday fun and free activities for kids... Fun attractions, family food & travel, kids health & wellbeing, kids parties venues, parenting, pregnancy & babies, guide for parents. Servicing Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and beyond, Kids on the Coast is an online guide for parents with kids things to do with kids, schools and education and lifestyle news located on Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast & Brisbane, QLD.

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