Being ourselves

A message to young people and their parents for Children’s Mental Health Week.

The theme of this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week is ‘Being Ourselves’. Well that’s an obvious one isn’t it – who could disagree with that? When you’re not sure what to do or say; it’s reassuring, even soothing, isn’t it – ‘Just be yourself’ – sorted? Well maybe, but maybe not. Do we all know exactly which person we should be? Is there a nice clear icon, image or person that I can just say is me, and from that follow them and how they behave? Maybe not.

The truth is we all adapt our behaviour, what and how we say things, and sometimes even how we think and feel, to the different people we are with, and especially to the different contexts; friends, others of our same age, peers in school, clubs and just people around, parents, teachers, other adults, people we are in a relationship with, managers and so on. That is normal and expected.

So, does that mean that we are different people in all these places and contexts, or does it just mean that everyone has different sides they show in different places and to different people? If it is that then how do we know which to show when?

Whilst many will be able to know how to respond to different situations, it can be a problem if we feel very unsure about ourselves, very unconfident in being able to say ‘what I am like’, or even rather negative about what you are like. Then, when we have to play different ‘parts’ with different people, it can sometimes feel as though we are not being genuine, acting, being a fraud – when it isn’t really. It’s just that we can’t find a nice reassuring voice inside to remind us, ‘it’s all genuinely me’.

So how do we find a nice reassuring voice that says, ‘that’s me’? Some people might think that to really ‘be yourself’ could mean cutting yourself off from other people, staying away from people who affect how you feel or behave, and perhaps even ‘locking’ yourself away from friends at home. But it does not work like that.

What helps us to feel confident and more sure about ourselves, so that we can trust that were are in fact ‘being ourselves,’ is to be and do more with other people. For young people that can be with adults or people of their own age. It can be great to talk, but that is not the only thing. Doing things which are fun or help us to feel some achievement; sports, dance, music, drama, and all kinds of activities with others, can help.

However it’s not just what you do that helps you to ‘feel yourself’; it’s also what you mentally do – that is, what you do in your head. So, the other thing we have to learn to do is to ‘listen’ to our own ideas, thoughts, and feelings, and don’t let these get wiped out or washed away by other people – whether these people are parents, teachers, professional helpers, friends or schoolmates, husbands or wives, or even bosses.

In some ways our own mind; our own ability to think things out in a way that also fits what we feel, is our most valued possession. For a child who is developing that ability, it is helped by parents being there and available, supportive and warm, but not intruding too much on the child trying to work things out for themselves.

When the child believes that one or both parents are not too secure themselves, it can be more difficult for the child to focus on their own mind. That can happen when there is family break up, violence, alcohol or drugs, major illness in the family or major threats to the family – from bad housing to immigration problems and parents losing their job. It can particularly happen when a parent has a mental illness, and that is for three main reasons:

  • The child may not believe that the parents or the family are safe and secure
  • The child may feel they have lost the parent being there emotionally, and has lost the supportive and warm person they need to help their mind grow
  • The child may feel that they have to stay close and involved with the parent’s mind, both because that mind is worrying and because they feel that maybe they can help it to be stronger

The last of these three can be a particular problem when you are growing up for two reasons:

  1. A child’s attempt to help may not work or may make the parent feel more confused or guilty
  2. It diverts the child’s mind from the job of developing their own

So we – both adults and children – must encourage young people both to ‘get in there’ and do things with other young people, and at the same time remember to put their own feelings and thought first – even if feels like it means being a bit selfish.

Trust your thoughts and feelings. They really matter.