Why stories are important for kids’ mental health

Day in the life dad

How to get mindful when your mind’s full

To recognise World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we invited guest blogger (and dad) Jamie Day to tell us about his experiences of juggling modern dadhood with his own mental health – and why stories are so important for him and his family.

Since becoming a father back in 2012, I’ve used blogging, social media and podcasting to promote modern-day fatherhood and more recently raise mental health awareness. With multiple projects covering parenthood and mental health under my expanding dadbod belt, I’ve seen so many crossovers in the work I do and I believe, as parents, it’s paramount we do what we can to ensure our children are well placed to manage their developing emotions and mental wellness.

A young mind is full of wonder, imagination and creativity, but it can also be stifled by worries that are difficult to process and express. With so much pressure on today’s children to perform well academically, take up sports, hear how their planet is being destroyed, cope with peer pressure, whilst forcing a smile for their parents’ Instagram, it’s no wonder that things might sometimes be a little overwhelming for kids. In fact, about 10% of children have a diagnosable mental health condition.

As a long-time sufferer of mental health issues myself, one of the ways I try and take a break from everything that’s racing around inside is to write. I might jot down what’s troubling me, I might tap away at a new blog, begin a children’s story (that’ll probably remain hidden on my laptop forever) or strum my guitar and pen some lyrics (that’ll be performed to my dogs when no one’s home). This little burst of creativity is so valuable to break the cycle of negativity burning inside.

Further to my writing, I also find it hugely rewarding to read. I’m not talking about smashing out War and Peace in an afternoon, no, it might just be a magazine article, the news headlines or just a chapter or two from my latest bedside book. These simple yet hugely rewarding helpings of literacy allow me to slow down, reflect, and be in a better place to express how I’m feeling, whether it to be to friends, family or those long-suffering dogs of mine.

As an adult I’m able to recognise and appreciate the importance of reading, writing and vocalising my feelings, but it’s key for children to be in a position to express themselves too. A report from the National Literacy Trust, ‘Mental wellbeing, reading and writing’ explores the links between children’s mental wellbeing and their relationship with reading and writing. Based on a survey of almost 50,000 young people aged 8-18 in the UK, the report discovered that children and young people who were the most engaged with literacy had a better mental wellbeing than their peers who are the least engaged. The report also includes new analysis from University College London which details a continuing relationship between mental health and verbal scores, with those who have low verbal ability having worse mental health outcomes.

I’ve read to both of my children on a nightly basis from pretty much day dot. Initially their bedtime tales were to dupe them into some kind of routine before the gigantic task of getting them to sleep, but as time passed and they got older, it became obvious that the tales they were hearing were filling their imaginations, sparking conversation, prompting questions, improving their vocabulary and notably calming them. After days filled with potties, painting and Peppa Pig, it became increasingly paramount to always fit in a bedtime story. I believe a child who’s been exposed to so many experiences throughout their day, requires some time to debunk and find some peace.

These days, especially with my daughter who’s 6, reading and writing forms so much more of her life than just a bedtime ritual. She can lose herself in writing her own stories (which are often blatant rip-offs of a certain boy wizard), and this quiet time to herself, in a calm yet motivated and thoughtful state allows her to slow down and escape the pressures that even a young girl can experience. Her vocabulary is extensive, and she’s become very open about times when she feels sad or just a little lost. Whilst it’s upsetting to hear that a 6-year-old can experience low moods, it’s hugely positive that she has the capacity to express her emotions rather than bottling them up now her emotional literacy is broadened.

I’m positive so much of this is due to her relationship with reading and writing. We’re by no means perfect parents, we do so many things wrong, (which useless dad forgot about the school trip to the beach at the end of term? – *raises hand*), but I’d like to think we’ve got one thing right, and that’s the kids’ healthy relationship with literacy, and thus hopefully a healthier relationship with their mental wellness.

I’ve been a big fan of Wonderbly for a long time now and would recommend their stories to anyone, whether your children are advanced young readers or only just starting out. We received The Little Girl Who Lost Her Name as a gift when my daughter was very young, but despite her age, it was obvious when reading to her that she became more receptive as she began to understand the main character was in fact her. Indeed, studies have shown that personalisation in books can have a hugely positive effect on children. They’re seeing themselves in these wonderful tales, thus are more responsive to the language and accompanying social messages from the stories such as courage, curiosity and kindness – social skills that can play a big part in mental wellness.

Since The Little Girl Who Lost Her Name, Edie has also received Wonderbly’s You Are Extraordinary – a self-belief journal that gives her the opportunity to record and celebrate her successes, whilst managing and reducing worries. The personalisation and growth mindset activities really help Edie understand how extraordinary she is whilst processing what’s going on in her young and often very busy mind.

As a father of two with mental health awareness at the centre of a lot of the work I do, I know the value of stories and how important they are for children. From the pages of a book, children’s creativity and education can be enhanced, but just as importantly, so can their mental wellbeing.

Jamie Day is an award-winning blogger, mental health podcaster, and dad to Edie and Arlo. His podcast Man Talk raises awareness about men’s mental health and is normalising the conversation and removing stigmas. For more tales of joy – and the occasional woe – of being modern day dad, check out his brilliant blog A Day In The Life Dad.