Thanks to Justin Bieber I have perfected a look that is part sulk, part confusion, part sex appeal. You know the look I’m talking about it, the one he uses when he’s being photographed in public or discussing calculus. I use it every time my husband wants to talk about money and honestly, I thought that was all I’d ever learn from the Biebs.
Turns out I was wrong because when the twenty three-year old Canadian singer abruptly cancelled the rest of his world tour, including two Toronto dates, he gave me an opportunity to talk to my kids about mental health.
I know it sounds weird but here’s what happened:
While the official reason for the tour cancellation was “unforeseen circumstances” subsequent speculation and comments by the Biebs himself indicate he was struggling with issues beyond set lists and popcorn sales. In a statement he released on August 2, Bieber wrote:
“Me taking this time right now is me saying I want to be SUSTAINABLE. I want my career to be sustainable but I also want my mind heart and soul to be sustainable. So that I can be the man I want to be, the husband I eventually want to be and the father I want to be.”
Even though they didn’t have tickets, it didn’t take long for my kids to find out Bieber’s shows were cancelled and pepper me with questions:
“Is he sick?”
“Did his parents tell him he had to quit singing?”
“Did he get arrested again?”
Mental health is not an easy topic to simplify and I am by no means an expert. But I do know it’s becoming more and more common for young people to struggle. I think it’s vitally important that we normalize the topic and some of the language so our kids can develop self-awareness, communication and coping skills.
My daughters are seven and ten-years old, so I tend to describe mental health in over-simplified terms. While they don’t entirely do the topic justice, such simplifications worked for me because they got us talking in ways that are age-appropriate and relatable. At this stage, my goal was to open the lines of communication, which is especially important with puberty looming like a freight train in the distance.
I also want my kids to understand that it’s okay to not feel happy all the time, that some sadness can be normal, and that talking to a trusted adult is always a good idea.
To tackle this conversation, using the opening provided by the Biebs, I did what every mother who needs her children’s undivided attention should do: I took them on a long, tablet-free car ride where there was nothing to look at but cows and trees. I asked them questions like:
What makes you feel sad or angry?
What do you do when you’re sad or angry?
Do you like to talk to mommy and daddy when you feel sad? Why or why not?
What can mommy and daddy do to help you when you feel angry or sad?
Do you ever feel sad or angry for no reason?
What kinds of things make you feel better when you’re sad?
Is there anything you wish mommy and daddy knew about you? Is there anything you’ve never told us or we’ve never asked?
Is there anything you’re worried about that you haven’t shared with mommy and daddy?
When you’re lying in bed and can’t sleep, what do you think about? Are your thoughts mostly happy or sad?
Is there anything you wish you could change?
My questions weren’t meant to be a diagnostic tool, I simply wanted to get the ball rolling; to let them know I am aware of and sensitive to their feelings and moods, and that I care about their mental health as much as I care about keeping them safe from cars and strangers. I’m on them about brushing their teeth and hair every damn day so it was time to alter the script and shift my focus to include a different kind of care.
I was intimidated at first, because I’m not an expert and I don’t have all the answers, but I didn’t want that to hold me back from having the conversation, and I didn’t want them to sense my anxiety, so I tried to just jump in without overthinking it.
As we know, children will fill in the blanks themselves when they don’t have all the information. Think back to everything you “learned” on the playground about sex, for example. Imagine if no one ever corrected those misunderstandings. (I for one would still believe that women get pregnant from French kissing.)
The approach I used to discuss mental health with my kids may not be appropriate for all families. Everyone has a different frame of reference, different priorities and different ways of approaching challenging topics. But I think what you say is less important than simply being there, asking and listening. If you want to arm yourself with some information and ideas, search online for “talking to your kids about mental health” and get instant access to thousands of suggestions, or speak to your Doctor.
Talking openly, even at a young age, gives us a chance to gently correct misconceptions. It empowers kids to ask questions, to demystify things they might be anxious or scared of, which is especially important if they’ve experienced mental illness personally or via someone they care about.
After my conversation with my daughters, I felt like I had a better understanding of their frame of reference around mental health and sadness. I felt like I’d given them some tools, permission and encouragement to talk openly about how they’re feeling, without the need to justify or explain. Most importantly, I’d developed a road map to better and more proactively navigate future issues.
And that makes me feel better.