We often think of children as happy-go-lucky, free from the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood. But children often pick up on the stressors and challenges of life on the farm. The impact of COVID-19 is still affecting the mental health of children and youth, and many rural communities are facing overwhelming challenges that can generate strong emotions for the whole family.
Opening up lines of communication and talking openly with your children about challenges on the farm and mental health is one of the best places to start. Research into Kansas farm families shows that children often blamed themselves for their family’s financial situation and stress. When parents tried to protect their children by keeping all challenges secret, children felt more anxious. Of course it’s natural to want to protect your children from the harsher realities of life, but often they pick up on this stress anyway. Showing that you are comfortable talking about these issues and facing them can increase feelings of trust and resilience.
Here are some tips for talking to your child about their worries and mental health:
Work on de-stigmatizing the language around mental illness in your own mind. Many adults have a difficult time even saying the words “mental illness”, never mind applying those words to a child. If you seem to stumble over those words, practice saying them out loud. Mental illness is nothing to be scared of, ashamed of or threatened by – so say the words out loud and practice using them. Normalize them as best you can in your mind before you speak to a child about this topic. Work on addressing your own stigma around mental health, so you don’t pass on the stigma to your child.
In rural communities, strength and self-reliance are especially important values. Remind your child that asking for help and talking about their emotional and mental health is a sign of strength.
Be open and honest. As mentioned above, one of the most important aspects to helping a child, whether they will be diagnosed with a mental illness or not, is open and honest communication. Talking openly about emotion and mental health may be difficult, particularly if this is a new way to communicate, but the more open and honest you are about what you’ve noticed, how you’re feeling and your true desire to help, the greater and stronger your journey is going to be.
This goes for the things that are causing great stress on the farm. If you are struggling with farm management, the effects of climate change, financial uncertainty, and other stressors, it’s okay to explain what’s going on. Usually children know when their parents are stressed and upset, and being kept in the dark can increase uncertainty.
Don’t sugar-coat. Talking about mental health and mental illness with a child can be a very serious topic. It deserves to be treated as such. Try not to sugar-coat anything or talk to a child like they’re a baby (this advice is coming from an 11-year old boy diagnosed with four mental illnesses). If you have noticed their behaviour has changed, you can almost guarantee a child has been feeling different. Having you acknowledge this change will most likely come as a relief to them. So be direct with your words and use language suitable for their age.
Try Talking While Doing an Activity: Sometimes having a conversation about mental health can feel overwhelming for you both. Here are some activities you can do for creating a relaxing environment that can help you both open up more easily to one another. Perhaps you can talk about mental health while visiting or working with animals on the farm, which can be more relaxing.
Be truthful, not hurtful. Mental illness and changes in mental health may have caused a child’s behaviour to change dramatically. It can be frustrating, nerve-wracking and daunting to
address behavioural problems, particularly if they are less desirable behaviours. As you begin to navigate along your journey, try to remain as honest and truthful as possible without hurtful or negative comments. Many of these new behaviours from a child may be just as upsetting for them as they are for you, so helping them understand what you’ve noticed and how it makes you feel will go a lot further than telling them the behaviour is “bad” or “naughty.”
Be as prepared as possible for their response. You have no idea how a child will respond to initial conversations about how they are feeling with respect to their mental health and wellbeing. They may feel relieved that you’ve noticed a change. They may feel angry that you’re talking about something that is upsetting for them. They may feel sad if they feel like they’re letting you down somehow. Try to be prepared for any reaction and validate how they are
The best way to do that? Stay kind. Stay compassionate. Try to be as understanding as you can possibly be. This advice holds true for your entire journey understanding a child’s mental health. In addition, taking care of your own needs and mental wellbeing will demonstrate to your child how to prioritize mental health and will also ensure you can be there for them.