Therapist Michael O'Sullivan looks at the theme of this week's Children's Mental Health Week - being ourselves 

“Being ourselves” is the theme of this week's children’s mental health week.

I can understand why this was chosen as a theme because knowing and accepting who we are is good for mental health whether you are a child or an adult.

For many, the roots of depression began in a childhood where they were never allowed to be themselves.  

  • 8 in 10 children experience low self-esteem says Place2Be

Being yourself depends on the network of relationships you happen to be in so says the work of Tony Ryle, Carol Dweck and Jean Piaget can be helpful here.

Reciprocal roles

In Tony Ryle’s Cognitive Analytic Therapy there is the idea called “reciprocal roles”.

Our sense of who we are is developed in a reciprocal relation to another. When we respond to being comforted as a child by our parent we are learning two roles: what it is to be “comforted” and what the role of being a “comforter” is.

Unfortunately learning these roles also happens with parents who are critical or abusive. We end up learning the role of being the “criticised” as well as the role of the self-critic.

If roles such as these are learned repeatedly and generalised to others then the child’s relationships will be of course, clouded by fear of criticism.  

Winning the race

This fear is made worse by wider influences from society, most notably social media. For many children life is like a “race”.

Things are ok until the child falls behind in the race and then their self-esteem drops.

How you value yourself should not be based solely on where you are in that race.

Fixed characteristics

Carol Dweck in speaking about mind sets talks about children who are told by significant others in their lives that their characteristics are inherent or fixed. 

Children who receive this message face potential problems.

If you are told you are “smart”, then the pressure is all about not failing. If you are told you are stupid then you never try anything new because you know you will fail.

Dweck speaks about developing a growth mind set.  

Such a mind set suggests that characteristics such as intelligence can be “grown” and that challenges are good because getting things “wrong” helps us to learn.   

An appreciation of mind sets must also take into account of course, that we should remember that children are not mini-adults.

Child development

Jean Piaget spoke about the different stages in child development from the pre-operational stages to the operational.

The preoperational stages, from 2 to 7 is where the child lives in “their head” and cannot think in “cause and effect” ways.

The operational stage from 7 onwards is when the child thinks logically making those cause and effect links.  

When we think about our interactions with children as parents we may need to remember where children are “at”.

The sense of who we are is fluid.

When I think of myself as a child, I see a different version of myself to the adult version writing this blog.

However, the roots of who I am “now” was that child “then”. The earlier version of me was formed from within the relationships I found himself in.

Maybe for children to be themselves we really only need to think about how we relate to them.

Spend the day with key thought-leaders in mental health as they address today’s most competitive challenges at MHT Wales 2018. Tickets are £35 and you’ll go home with new insight and strategies to help improve crisis care, better understand equality & diversity and recognise mental health conditions.