Find out why supporting children and young people to explore self-expression is important for their mental health and well-being.
COVID-19 and the measures to control it have brought many changes to children and young people’s lives, especially to those areas which we know to be important for their mental health and well-being. With many changes likely to continue for some time, it is important children and young people are encouraged to find new ways to look after their mental health and well-being.
What does ‘express yourself’ mean?
Expressing yourself is about finding creative ways to share feelings, thoughts or ideas. This may be through painting, journaling, dancing or maybe just having a chat with a friend.
There may be many ways we choose to express ourselves. It may change depending on the situation we find ourselves in and will be different to others. The most important thing is finding what works for you, in that moment, so you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings.
Why is it important for children and young people to express themselves?
Mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, can happen at any age. However, for many people, childhood and young adulthood represents a particularly important time for development, well-being and mental health.
Before the pandemic, research suggested that around half of mental health problems develop by the mid-teens, with three quarters established by the mid-twenties.1 Mental health problems among children had been slowly rising.
From our own research, we found that more than one in 10 children indicated that they have no one to talk to at school if they are feeling worried or sad, and one in two children did not ask for help because they didn’t understand what they were going through.2
These figures highlight the importance of both early intervention and prevention for young people’s mental health.
With prevention at the heart of our work here at the Mental Health Foundation, we believe that there is a basic level of knowledge and skill that everyone needs around their own mental health. With the pandemic continuing to impact all of us in different ways, this is even more important.
For children and young people, there have been lots of changes to many areas of their lives, such as their education. This means it is important we support them to find ways to positively express how they are feeling and seek support when needed.
Peer support can positively impact how children express themselves
We understand that, for children and young people, the influence of peers (friends and other role models) is incredibly important. Peer relationships form support networks where young people can comfortably express themselves.
Our programmes within schools have a strong focus on creating meaningful peer relationships within school.
Peer Education Project
The Peer Education Project (PEP) is a secondary school-based, educational programme. It aims to give young people the skills and knowledge they need to protect and sustain their mental health and well-being.
The interactive, mental health syllabus is delivered by Peer Educators (older students) – who are trained and supported by the school staff leading the project – to Peer Learners (Year 7/8 or S1 students).
The project was born out of the idea that a key source of support to young people is their peer group within the school environment, with our research showing that six out ten young people would seek support from a peer first.2
The project provides an opportunity not only to focus on mental health education and the value of peer education, but also bridges the gap between younger and older students and builds upon a mentally healthy school ethos.
We learnt how to discuss mental health in a concise yet honest way, as well as being able to bridge the age gap between sixth form and lower school, which has been extremely rewarding. - Peer Educator
Becoming a Man programme
The Becoming a Man (BAM) programme works with young men who have been identified as needing support with social and emotional well-being. They learn about healthy behaviours within their school.
BAM provides young men a space to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences with each other. They support their own and each other’s development, aided by a BAM counsellor.
By communicating with each other and exploring their options in given scenarios, the BAM participants are able to reflect and develop their decision-making skills. Decision-making requires knowing what you want and need best.
Making a good decision is a form of self-expression, by choosing the next best actions for yourself.
I like BAM because I am learning there are different ways to become a man. I have choices. - BAM participant (year 10)
Ideas on how to support children and young people to express themselves
It is important during this time to ensure any activities we take part in are in line with current advice from the government.
Here are a few simple ways you can support a child or young person to open up and express themselves:
Make the time
Make time to talk openly on a regular basis. Encourage them to share how they are feeling. It may take a while before the child feels able to open up, so it is important to keep providing opportunities and show understanding, even if they don’t share anything.
Good opportunities to do this can be when taking part in an activity together. For example, at home, when cooking a meal or sitting down together at mealtimes. You could plan a specific activity together, maybe join in with their favourite hobbies.
This will give you time together, one-on-one, and demonstrate an interest in the ways they choose to express themselves.
Set a good example
Sharing how you’re feeling, how you like to express yourself and how you look after your mental health and well-being are ways of setting a good example. It is important to do so in an encouraging way that doesn’t place any burden on them to follow your preferred activities.
Encourage communication and teamwork
It can be hard to have conversations about how we are feeling. Children may feel embarrassed or might not want to engage in a direct conversation about their emotions.
Remind them their thoughts, feelings and ideas are important
Invite and encourage children to give their thoughts and opinions, such as planning an activity for the day or deciding on what to cook for dinner. This will help reinforce that their opinions are important, and you want to listen to them.
Top tips for children and young people
Here are eight top tips for children and young people to look after their mental health and explore ways of expressing themselves.
(Taken from our Peer Education Project)
Understand and manage feelings
Journaling can be a useful way to explore your thoughts and feelings. You could try free writing, drawing, creating a collage – it's about finding what works for you!
Have something to look forward to
Plan a games evening with your family or a virtual catch-up with your friends. It is also important to have space just for you – watch your favourite movie or read a book.
Spend time in green spaces
Take time to get some fresh air and explore the outdoors. Sometimes, this can give us space to work through our thoughts and feelings.
Have a healthy diet
Why not offer to help cook and see if there are any new recipes you like? You can also use this time to connect with the other person.
Doing something for someone else. For example, help a family member with the cleaning or volunteer in the local community. Volunteering not only helps them but can make you feel good about yourself too.
It can also be a chance to pause on how you are feeling until you are ready to open up.
Be physically active
You could try a new activity or revisit one you already know. Being physically active can be a great way to release our stored-up energy and emotions.
Build and maintain positive relationships
It is important to spend time with those who support us. Over time, the relationship can build trust and be someone we can turn when we need.
Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week is organised by Place2Be. You can find more information and resources via their website.
As part of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation will be running workshops at the UK’s first ever mental health and well-being festival for primary and secondary schools, organised by Now and Beyond. To find out more about the festival and how your school can get involved, visit their website.
If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.
- Mental Health Foundation. (2019). State of a Generation: Preventing mental health problems in children and young people.
- Mental Health Foundation. (2018). Make it Count: policy briefing. [Online].
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