What happens when you speak to primary school kids about their mental health?

When I was asked to speak to years 5 and 6, from a local primary school about their mental health and wellbeing, I had no idea what to expect. However, what I took away from that day is something everyone needs to know.

To give some context, a few months ago I spoke to the year 10 students from a local high-school, as well as their teachers. Something I have done many times before. One of the people there that day was the assistant head of the senior preparatory school. Knowing all too well the situations of his students he knew that something like this was needed for them.

I received an email asking me to be a part of something very similar to what was done for their high-school, yet this time it would be for their years 5 and 6. I called to confirm that there wasn’t a typo.

There wasn’t.

I would be speaking to kids aged 10, 11, and 12.

This was new, different, something I was cautious about agreeing to. I was used to speaking with teenagers and adults, not kids. I can’t remember the last time I even spoke to a 10 year old, let alone about anything serious.

“Are you sure this is suitable for the kids?” I asked the assistant head.

After all, aren’t kids meant to be happy? Aren’t they too young to have to face and deal with the realities of the world? Let them just be happy and be kids. They don’t need this. It doesn’t affect them.

I knew this was wrong - I know the facts and figures - yet it was something I wanted to believe. I think it’s something we all want to believe. But I was 10 when I first started feeling as bad as I did. The thoughts that no 10 year old should have, I had.

I asked how this idea came about, and was told that as the assistant head, he speaks to a lot of the kids and parents, so he knows the struggles and questions some of these kids are facing. After seeing the talk to the high-school, he liaised with the teachers and spoke with the kids about how the day went, why it was important, and that the school wanted to have something similar for years 5 and 6. The kids would be able to ask any question they wanted, nothing was off limits. A survey-monkey was set up for them go on, so they could submit their questions anonymously.

It simply said, “What’s on your mind (anything at all)”.

120 and kids, over 140 responses.

There were some general themes and similar questions, and they were grouped together. However, there were 2 questions that meant I couldn’t say no.

“Well I’m mostly depressed… I seem happy and fine but I’m not even sure if I should tell how I’m feeling inside because I think a 10 year old should not feel what I feel. I’m ashamed.”

“Every night I wonder how much my life is worth. Sometimes I just cry at night because I think of how happy others are and how no one listens to me.”

I would be part of a panel, alongside a local police officer, and a child psychologist. The language and conversation was all tailored specifically for that age group. The teachers would be there, and there would be a debriefing with the class after as well.

The main messages were reinforcing that it’s okay to not always be happy; it’s okay to feel sad; that boys and men get upset too, it’s not a girl thing, it’s a human thing; that there is support both at home and specifically at the school, if they ever feel they need a little bit extra support or tools to help manage how they feel; that no matter how bad any day or moment feels, it will always get better.

We also covered bullying, social media, peer pressure, stress, family dynamics, and self-worth.

Other questions were:

“Mum and Dad breaking up - upsets me and what can I do to help?”

“My brother and dad have a lot of arguments and it makes me sad… that’s what sometimes makes me feel horrible, when my brother is down.”

“I am sad about how I'm not as smart as I could be.”

“Some people make me feel down, sad and left out, making me feel like I should not come here.”

“Why am I not popular?”

I really didn’t know what to expect, but the day went better than I could have imagined.

The kids listened, there was no fidgeting, or anyone sent out, they interacted, they wanted to know more.

After following up with the deputy assistant, I learned just how powerful that day was for them. The debriefing in the classroom allowed a lot of the kids to express themselves that otherwise wouldn’t have before. Beyond that, the response from their classmates was only of support, and reassurance. There was no judgment or ridicule.

Parents came in over the next few days and thanked him for facilitating the talk, as their children opened up to them like they hadn’t before.

Hearing all of this brought a tear to my eye. What I would have given to know this at that same age. Even if it didn’t play a role then, it would have years later. Knowing that schools and teachers are actively involved to give the best to their students. How humbled and encouraged I am that I could be a part of something that was such an unknown, yet complete success.

So after all of that, what was it that I took away from it all?

That children are simply little adults. They feel, think, have hopes, and desires. They have fears, attachments, and disappointments. The only difference is their perspective.

When we see children have such elation and excitement for opening presents, or seeing their best friend, we envy their ability to feel such joy for such simple things. Yet when they are upset, or devastated over losing a toy, or falling over we cuddle them and tell them everything is okay, don’t be silly, it’s not a big deal, just be happy.

This is understandable; we want our kids to be safe and happy for as long as possible. We want to protect them from the world. They are too young to be upset; they should be happy and enjoying themselves. They really have nothing to worry about. They’re kids!

What drives this is that we feel directly responsible for their emotional state. We are content and proud when they smile, yet feel disappointed in ourselves when they cry. It’s our fault for not being able to keep them happy.

Considering that the naivety that allows kids to feel such joy over simple things is the same naivety that causes them to feel such sadness over trivial things; why should we only expect them to feel happy?

By no means is any of this implying or suggesting that there needs to be some over-haul of parenting, or that all kids are suffering with a mental illness, or any other dire possibility. All I aim to point out is that kids feel.

They are little humans, and part of being human is feeling the full range of human emotions. Kids are growing up faster and faster in every way, and their emotional capacity is no different.

We shouldn’t be creating patterns with our kids that teach them that happiness is the only appropriate emotion, and that sadness shouldn’t be expressed. This encourages the idea of good and bad emotions.

Happy = good

Sad = bad

This sets up really negative conditioning for when they get older. What we ought to be doing is encouraging them to feel, and provide a safe, non-judgemental space for them to open up and express themselves.

When they feel sad, or angry, we must stop and actively listen - if needed, help guide them - rather than be dismissive. Most importantly, they need to be encouraged and remind them that these feelings are moments. That no matter how hard right now is, it is a moment that will eventually pass.

Resilience isn’t about preventing difficult times; it is about supporting and empowering individuals to overcome their most difficult days.

No child should ever feel that they don’t have a right to feel a certain way. No child should feel they can’t tell someone what they are feeling because they are ashamed.

They learn all of this from us; we set the examples for our kids. How we treat others, and how we treat ourselves.

The reality is that no matter the demographic, kids are starting to feel the variety of emotions we all feel. They are talking about this amongst themselves. They have questions they want answers to. It’s better they have the safe space to ask them, and be given constructive and positive guidance and support, rather than finding the wrong information, or keeping it bottled up inside.

It’s important to remember that not all questions need answers, and not all perceived problems need solving. Sometimes what is needed most is simply to be heard.

The best thing anyone can do for their child isn’t to protect them from the world, it’s to actively listen, and equip them with the insights, tools, and confidence to take on any challenge that may come their way.

Easier said than done, but it’s a good place to start.