Talking about mental health with our youngest 4-H members is a daunting task. It is not easy to explain topics like depression, anxiety, and suicide to children, but it is vital that we have these important discussions. Why is it so important? There are some hard facts:
- 1 In every 5 American youth live with a mental health disorder.
- The median age of diagnosis for anxiety disorder is 11 years old.
- In Ohio, the leading cause of death for youth ages 8 to 10 is suicide.
When breaching the topic of mental health with young children, it is okay to start slow. As adults, we can help our young members begin to understand what specific emotions look like and how important it is to verbalize what we are feeling to others. Here are three simple ideas to get you started:
- Ask the right questions. Small talk can be a big tool when it comes to helping youth understand emotions. Instead of asking ‘how was school today?’ try asking questions about how youth felt during the day, such as ‘What is one thing that made you [worried, angry, excited, proud, etc.] today?’ or ‘When you finished your test today, how did you feel?’ These questions help youth connect specific emotions with circumstances, as well as developing self-awareness and reflection.
- Set the example. If we want our youth to tell us about how they are doing, we have to be willing to share parts of ourselves with them as well. When a 4-Her asks you ‘how are you today?,’ do not answer with ‘fine,’ ‘okay,’ or ‘well.’ Take this small amount of time to give an answer with detail that connects an emotion with an experience. “Today I am happy because I got to have lunch with an old friend,” “Today I am anxious because I have to give a big presentation at work tomorrow.” When you share with youth this way, they will be more likely to be able to verbalize their own emotions and experiences with you in return.
- Schedule it in. Make talking about emotions a regular part of your Cloverbud meetings. This could be as simple as asking youth to point how they’re feeling on an emotions face chart upon arrival, stating a specific emotion at the beginning of the meeting and giving each person a chance to share a time they felt that emotion, or asking each member to share a “rose and thorn” (favorite thing and least favorite thing) about the today at the closing of the meeting. This will normalize talking about their emotions with others and may encourage each youth to continue those conversations with their parents at home.
These changes to our regular conversation and interaction may seem small, but they can have a big impact on the ability of our youth to recognize and share their emotions; an important foundation for discussing more serious mental health topics.