Supporting Children’s Mental Health: A Q&A With Esther Marshall


Mental health is being given the recognition it deserves more than ever before. Although we have more work to do as a society, it is promising to see the growing safe spaces where we can get support. Since no one is exempt from struggle, we are turning the focus of the conversation to children’s mental health, in support of Children’s Mental Health Week 2022. 

We chatted with campaigner and author of Sophie Says, Esther Marshall, to help us gain an understanding on how our children can be affected by mental health issues and how we as parents, aunties and uncles, brothers and sisters, grandmas and grandads, teachers, guardians, and everything in between, can help support them safely.

Q. How can I recognise if my child is struggling? What are the classic signs?

A. We get asked this question by so many parents who worry about if their child is struggling. The most important thing to do is be there with your child, come to their level and look into their eyes and let them know you are there. You may notice that your child is a lot quieter than they usually are. They may not want to go out and see friends or do anything they usually enjoyed. They may start to let it out with their emotions and cry a lot more or get angry as this is them acting out as they can’t necessarily express how they are feeling.

Q. How can I speak with my child about mental health, without them feeling confused or overwhelmed?

A. For a lot of us the term mental health regardless of whether we are children or adults sounds confusing and sometimes scary. We very much feel it’s more about starting the conversation around feelings and how we feel. That is something children can identify with a lot more easily and will help start the conversation. If children can then learn how to express their feelings it will then lend itself to a better mental health as they will be able to notice the signs of when they are feeling sad or down. If we talk more about feelings and feeling safe to talk from a young age it will naturally help them. In order to get children to open up about their feelings you can use the following tips: 

1. Ask open questions. These are questions which require a full answer rather than a closed question which only requires a yes or no answer. For instance, instead of asking “did you have a good day?” where the child will either say yes or no, ask “what was the best part of your day?” or “what was the worst part of your day?”.

2. Distractions away. When talking to children about their feelings and how they feel ensure all other distractions are away e.g no phones or TV on in the background.

3. Talk openly about your own feelings. Let them know that you also feel sad and angry sometimes and that that is ok. It’s good for children to see you as human rather than this perfect always happy person who they don’t feel they can be their true selves around.

4. Create a safe space. This is incredibly important. If a child doesn’t feel safe, they won’t talk at all. A great activity to try is to create a safe corner or space within the home or at school where they can go to in order to feel safe to talk.

5. Eye contact. Ensure eye contact with the child but don’t expect them to keep eye contact back. You want to ensure that they always know you are there and for that split second when they look up and want to know you are there that you are and that you are fully concentrating on them.   

Q. When should I begin the conversation? Is it ever too early? Am I too late?

A. There is no wrong or right time to start this conversation. It totally depends on when you and your child/children feel comfortable to do so. You can start as early as 2 years old all the way up to secondary school.

 “If you haven’t already started the conversation then the conversation can start, in the form of sharing feelings and understanding your feelings and emotions from as young 2 or 3 years old. If your child or children are older than that then it is certainly not too late.”

Any time before adult hood is better than nothing. Any time during childhood especially during primary school age is great. Being proactive around talking about your feelings andbeing able to recognise your feelings is the basis to children then having a good mental health without having to describe it to them as mental health. Once you start to get into secondaryschool then some of the conversations will be reactive to what they are going through but even if it’s a reactive conversation about mental health any conversation is better than none.

Q. What steps can I take to ensure my child feels supported and combat any issues?

A. As with any issues with your child the most important one to help ensure that they feel supported is listening to them and telling them you hear what they are saying and you believe them and you are there to help, always. A lot of the time children just need to hear that they have someone who is there for them and will always be by their side. Of course, there may be deeper issues which need addressing but for the most part ensuring that they know you are there for them, speaking to them without any other distractions around and making sure they know they are your priority will make a big difference in helping them feel supported.

Q. What can I do if I feel my child needs additional help with their mental health?

A. If you feel your child needs additional help then the first port of call would be to speak to your child’s school as well as getting an appointment with your local GP to see how they can help. There are also local authority support groups as well as parent and child support groups and of course charities which can help. You can find lists of these organisations along with free downloadable resources to help children with their feelings on our free education hub here.

Q. What are the core teachings of the ‘Sophie Says’ books?

A. Each book has been written with core teachings in mind. There are three books at the moment, the first is called Sophie Says I Can I Will, which teaches all about courage and trying again. It also teaches that girls can do whatever they want in life. Sophie Says Its Okay Not to Be Okay teaches all about feelings and how its okay to feel sad and down, how its okay to cry especially if you are a boy and trying to help remove the stereotype of toxic masculinity. It teaches how we all need to find somewhere or something we feel safe with before we can talk and that once we talk, we feel better. The third book is called Sophie Says Be Proud of Who You Are and teaches all about being proud of the person you are on the outside and on the inside. All about self-belief, self-esteem and confidence, all with an underlying theme of true friendship and what a true friend should be.

Q. Can they be used to help parents communicate with their children on the subject of mental wellbeing?

A. Yes, this is exactly what we have tried to do. We say that the Sophie says books aim to make life’s most important lessons to learn. We are helping children bypass harmful stereotypes before they set in by changing the face of children’s literature and education.  

“Our mission is to enable all children to grow up feeling equipped and empowered to face their futures. To learn more about themselves, others and the world around them.”

We are helping parents/carers and teachers to teach their children positive messages and providing a toolkit to navigate some of the trickier conversations. Parents, carers and teachers can use the words in the book to start the conversation rather than having to think of their own way to talk about it, almost like a script. Our stories are FOR everyone, and we do this by trying to SHOW everyone. We hope the books help you talk to your child/children about their feelings and helps them build a more resilient foundation so that they can achieve their true potential in life.