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 what ourself is that we should be ? Is there a nice clear icon/image/person that I can just say is me, and from that read off what to do ? Maybe not. 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, boy/girl friends or lovers, work bosses, and people we apply to for jobs, money, bank loans 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 anyone 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 ?

In fact when one is fairly confident about oneself, when you kind of know what sort of person is you at different times – then it is not a problem. 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 ‘I am 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. Its just that we can’t find a nice reassuring voice inside to remind us ‘Its all genuinely me’.

So..the thing is how to get one; a nice reassuring voice that says ‘that’s me’. Some people might think that to ‘really be yourself’ could mean cutting yourself off from too much effects of other people, staying away from people who affect how you feel or behave, and perhaps even ‘locking’ yourself away from friends by staying at home. But it really 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 its not just what you do that helps you to ‘feel yourself’; its also what you mentally do – that is what you do in your head – with what you do. 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 school mates, 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 him or herself.

When the child believes that one or both of the parents are not too secure themselves, it can be more difficult for the child to focus on his or her 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 – like from bad housing, immigration problems, 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 he or she has lost the parent from being there – emotionally – and has lost the supportive and warm person he or she needs to help his or her mind to grow.

· The child may feel that lets say she has to stay close and involved with the parent’s mind, both because that mind is worrying and because she feels that maybe she can help it to be stronger. This one can be a particular problem when you are growing up:

  1. Because trying to help may not work or may even make the parent feel more confused or guilty.
  2. Because it can divert a child’s mind away from the job of developing his or her own thinking.

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.


  • Alan Cooklin FRCPsych

    Psychiatrist, campaigner for the children whose parents have mental illness, Founder of Our Time

    Consultant family psychiatrist, Founder and Academic Lead of Our Time as well as a private family psychiatrist. Developed and was Director of the Marlborough Family Service 1975-1995. Paediatric Liaison lead for UCLH and Consultant to the Camden and Islington Family Project for Major mental Illness, where I developed developed the ‘KidsTime’ workshops for families in which a parent suffers from mental illness. Retired from the NHS in 2015. Founding Chair of the Association for Family Therapy, founding Director and then Chair of the Institute of Family Therapy. Worked with families for some 45 years. Set up three University courses, and has taught throughout Europe, North and South America, Australasia, India, Singapore, and China. Regular expert witness in the District and High Courts in relation to Child Protection until 2015 Set up Kidstime Foundation in 2012 which became Our Time in 2018.