How to talk to your child about social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB)

aboriginal dad and two teens talking holding a surfboard

This article was produced through a partnership with Cox Inall Ridgeway, an Aboriginal social change agency. This article has been written and reviewed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

What do we mean by ‘social and emotional wellbeing’?

We’ve all experienced difficulties in our lives that cause us and our families to feel stress and, sometimes, distress. Effective communication about these issues, especially with our children and young people, is an important part of strengthening connection and moving towards healing.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of understanding social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) are different from Western ideas of mental health. Our understanding of health and wellbeing incorporates a ‘whole of life’ view that is linked to the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole community.

SEWB includes connection to body, mind and emotions, as well as to family, community, culture, Country, spirit and ancestors. Everybody has a different level of connection to each of these important areas. Strengthening connections between the areas is a way to build resilience, health and positive wellbeing.

When to talk to your child about social and emotional wellbeing

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities still experience a higher rate of trauma, distress and loss than Western communities in Australia, and the effects of colonisation, dispossession and disconnection continue to have an impact on people’s SEWB.

You may notice that your child is having a hard time with their SEWB if they:

  • seem angry, sad or worried
  • seem less confident
  • are having trouble with their relationships
  • are showing changes in their behaviour, such as eating or sleeping less, crying more often, appearing more moody
  • seem restless, frustrated or have difficulty concentrating
  • are displaying behaviours of self-harm or substance abuse.

You may or may not know what has caused their stress. Everyone responds in their own way to events or situations.

Creating a safe space to talk

It’s important to let your child know that you are there for them and want to help. Reassure them that there is nothing so bad that they can’t talk about it. Show them love, encouragement and acceptance; they need to know you are proud of them, no matter what.

To create a safe space for them to talk openly, pick a time when you can talk without interruptions. You could create a safe space by taking them on to Country, where they feel connected to the land, and having a yarn with them. It may also involve local Elders or community members coming together to talk to your child.

Starting the conversation

It’s okay not to know what to say. Some ways to start the conversation might be:

‘I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit quiet/down lately. Is there anything on your mind you want to talk about?’

‘I’ve felt anxious or depressed before and have noticed you might be feeling a bit like that. It helped me to talk about it. Would you like to talk about what’s going on?’ ‘

How are you going? Are you having trouble with anything at the moment?’

You might need to try a few times if they aren’t up for talking the first time. Try not to take it personally if they don’t feel like talking.

When they do start talking, try the following:

  • Listen without making any judgements. Remember that it can feel painful or embarrassing to talk about feelings or stuff that’s going on.
  • Avoid saying, ‘It’s no big deal’, or ‘It could be worse’. Don’t brush off what they are saying.
  • Avoid blaming, making jokes or criticising others.
  • Stay calm. If you feel angry or worked up, say that you need a quick break, walk away and take a deep breath. Try not to argue – this shows your child how to manage their own emotions and feelings in a healthy way.
  • Ask what you can do to help. They might want advice, or they might just want comfort and reassurance that things aren’t their fault. Let them know it’s okay to be angry or sad, or to cry. Feelings are normal and healing takes time.
  • Remember that silence is okay. You don’t have to do all the talking or have all the answers.

Make sure your teen knows they can come to you at any time. Let these hard topics keep coming up; there are no wrong questions and nothing’s too bad to talk about.

Sharing your own experiences

People often learn through story, and sharing stories is part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Ask your young person if they want to hear about your own experiences. It can be comforting to hear that others have been through similar things.

Talking about SEWB might trigger your own distress or worries. You might have your own experiences of trauma, anxiety, depression or cultural identity issues. It’s a real balancing act to help someone heal while also continuing your own healing journey. Step away from a conversation if it’s getting overwhelming; you can come back to it later.

Don’t feel like you have to have the answers. You’re supporting your young person as a parent or carer, but you don’t have to be a counsellor or therapist. If your young person needs professional support, you can help connect them with someone.

Focus on hope and building up strength

You can talk to your child about SEWB at any time; you don’t have to wait until they’re having trouble. As well as talking, doing things that build strength can also be helpful for our own and our young people’s SEWB. Positive activities to help build SEWB include:

  • sport and exercise
  • quiet time – reading, drawing, weaving
  • playing or listening to music
  • telling your story through writing or performing
  • yarning with Elders and extended family to learn about histories, build connections, and understand what is important
  • finding ways to connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and identity. This can encourage a sense of belonging and resilience. Get involved with the local community and go to cultural events. Find out together about Country, stories and language.

Remember that healing is a journey that takes time and can sometimes be painful. It isn’t a linear journey – every little step is a step in the right direction and will move you and your young person towards a better future.

Looking after yourself

Building SEWB is never the responsibility of just one person. We’re often good at looking after other people, but not so good at looking after ourselves. If you’re looking after yourself and feeling happy and well, you’ll be better able to look after your young person.

Here are some ideas for keeping yourself happy and well:

  • Make some time for yourself. Exercise, get outside, socialise, have a hobby and stay strong. For example, you might want to commit yourself to going to a weekly yoga or exercise class, or organise a regular fortnightly cook-up with close friends.
  • Pay attention to your own stress. If you’re starting to feel drained, moody or hopeless, it’s a sign you need a break.
  • Ask for help from family, friends, caseworkers, health workers, community Elders, counsellors or psychologists if you need it. Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help. Show kids that it’s okay to ask for support and to share their feelings.
  • Know that there is extra support available if things get too big to handle.

Where to go for help

If you are worried about your child and require further support, you can reach out to:

  • your GP
  • your local Aboriginal Corporation or Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS)
  • WellMob – for SEWB resources made by and for mob
  • Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800 (24 hours a day), or online chat with trained counsellors
  • Parentline – a state- and territory-based phone line that provides parents, carers and professionals with confidential and non-judgemental advice and support.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we’ve been through a lot. Our cultures and community are what keep us strong. When we share our stories, look after our bodies and minds, and connect with who we are and where we belong, our SEWB is in balance and can help us feel safe, healthy and well.

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