I'm not usually one for speaking up about mental illness. It's something I struggle to put into words. An issue that I feel so strongly about I can't quite formulate the sentences to describe the overwhelming emotions the topic evokes. I've tried before and I've failed to truly express myself.
As a parent, I battle often with worrying about the mental and emotional well being of Lily and Oliver.
My parents both suffered with mental illness when I was growing up. As a young child I can hardly remember any issues and look back through rose-tinted glasses at a golden childhood. Yet, with hindsight, and as I grew older, the impact of those mental health difficulties becomes more and more apparent.
My Mum has a bi-polar disorder. She manages it very well and I feel like I should praise her more for it. I admire her greatly for the challenges she has faced. But it isn't easy. The strain shows. It shows in our relationship, in our family, in our history. I would be lying if I pretended that I have not been affected by my Mum's mental illness.
Then there is my Dad. He committed suicide in 2005. To many family members and friends, it came out of the blue. But not to me. I'd secretly worried about the possibility of losing a parent to suicide for many years. Common sense would suggest that it would be my Mum, with her illness and previous attempts to end her life but I was aware of my Dad's growing depression, his alcohol problems, drug usage and growing debt. In some ways it wasn't a surprise when he died. I guess that makes me feel worse. I suspected, but I didn't save him.
I then went through multiple periods of depression and anxiety. Suffered from panic attacks. Was diagnosed with PND. Attended therapy sessions. Even now, I wouldn't describe myself as being free from the shadow of poor mental health.
And so it shouldn't surprise you to hear that I am determined to do all I can to protect my children from the same issues that have often affected me.
It's easier said than done. According to the Office of National Statistics, there are 900,000 children between five and 16 years-old with a mental health condition. Wow. That's a scary statistic. One that will be hard to overcome.
But I don't think being difficult is an excuse to not try.
So here is my plan, my goals, my 'tips' for promoting decent mental health in my children. This isn't based on a wish list of things my parents didn't do (in fact, they did a lot of this) but a foundation for my own parenting.
Focus on praising effort over results
Praise and positive reinforcement has massive benefits for children but I think it is important to praise the effort and process rather than just the finished product. It's so easy to declare "wow! that's great, you're so clever!" but ultimately this could lead to an inflated ego rather than a determination to succeed. By encouraging children for trying, for putting in their best effort, for working hard, we are teaching them the value of something other than the pursuit of perfection.
Cheer from the sidelines
I try not to rush in when the kids are attempting to do something. It's hard but I want them to learn to do things themselves, and cope with the frustration that comes during the learning process. Instead, I aim to encourage them and support them and give guidance where necessary.
Teach them to be realistic
We can't all be experts in everything. It's important to teach children that we are all different and instill in them an understanding of how we can work together. It's not about being pessimistic or negative, but instead helping them to understand that failing does not mean they are a failure. It's only by experiencing negative emotions, and processing them, that we learn how to deal with them later in life.
Get them moving
I believe that a healthy body and a healthy mind go hand in hand. That said, I hate exercise personally and so it is a challenge for me to encourage physical activity in the kids. It is important though as taking part in sport builds self-esteem as well as strength, helps maintain a healthy lifestyle and is a great way of improving mental health.
Set aside more time for free play
I like to get the kids involved in activities throughout the day - sensory activities, learning tasks, arts and crafts... the list goes on. However, I also try and leave a decent amount of time for free play. Playing encourages creativity, motor skills and social skills and is a huge part of learning for babies and toddlers.
Play, play and more play
No, I'm not repeating myself from my last point. By this I mean play myself. I mean putting down my phone, stepping away from the PC, leaving the washing and dusting and instead, play with my kids. By concentrating on them and getting involved I hope to teach them that they are important to me, build their confidence and forge a strong bond that'll last forever.
Charity is important in our family and is something I want to pass on to my children. Giving to others and helping with good causes promotes compassion and respect and helps build bridges and good relationships.
Encourage good sleep habits
There is nothing like having a baby to teach you the value of getting enough sleep. Sleeping well aids brain development as well as physical growth. It's something to work on, but I hope that instilling a good routine early on will help Lily and Oliver as they grow up.
More time, less toys
Despite my efforts, my home is overflowing with toys. Sometimes I worry that I appear ungrateful when people offer to buy my children toys or shower them with gifts at Christmas and birthdays. I'm not, I truly am grateful for such generosity, but I believe that spending time with my children is worth so much more than a toy shop full of brightly coloured plastic. That's why I like to spend less money on presents and more on a fun family day out. I'm not just being tight. I promise.
Banish image negativity
I fail on this all the time. I can't stand the way I look and will often vocalise my feelings about feeling fat and ugly. I know this is a dangerous path for both my children, because boys can suffer from poor body image too, and am actively working on curtailing this bad habit. I look at it a bit like swearing. If I can hold back from yelling "Shit!" when I drop a pan on my foot, then I can stop putting myself down in front of the kids and passing on habits of low self-esteem.
Most importantly I want them to grow into happy, capable and compassionate adults and that means giving them the tools for life - whether that is weighing up the pros and cons of something, overcoming a difficulty or fostering healthy relationships with others. I know that I can't just sit back and hope for the best, that I need to provide the framework for developing a healthy mind as much as I need to teach good manners and basic hygiene. Improving mental health is not something we should shy away from, or trust to luck, it is an essential part of bringing up well rounded children.