Teaching my children empathy is one of the most important priorities for me as a mum, because I have bipolar disorder. While I don't feel the need (yet) to explain the specifics of my disorder to my 3-year-old and 6-month-old, I want them to know that mental health disorders exist, despite the fact that we can't physically see them.
Helping a child understand why someone may be feeling a certain way is important for their own personal growth, but having these conversations isn't always easy. Because I have struggled with a mental health illness, I'm much more aware of why it's so important for kids to learn about it.
If everyone could be a little more open to the "why" behind things, the world would be a much brighter place.
I remember when I was in elementary school, the counsellor would come in for lessons about "warm fuzzies" and "cold pricklies." Using light and fun language like this helped us to understand how we were feeling and how to treat others. Sharing "warm fuzzies" makes our friends happy, and sending out "cold pricklies" doesn't.
In addition to fun "games" like this, one thing I also do when trying to educate my children on mental health is allow them to study my face when I'm upset, or ask them to look at another child's body language after someone said something hurtful. I'll ask my daughter if she can think of reasons why someone might look angry or sad, then we talk about ways we can change this. I tell her that by trying to understand why people are feeling a certain way, she can offer compassion. And if she can't make them feel better, she can know that it's not her fault.
But the most important thing any parent can do is lead by example, show kindness and compassion to others in front of their children, and communicate their importance. If a child comes into contact with someone battling the demons of mental health, the hope is that the child will try to understand the reason behind someone's behaviour instead of judging them at face value. If everyone could be a little more open to considering the "why" behind things, I think the world would be a much brighter place.