26th January 2024 Blog

Using kids' TV to help explain mental health

Maternal mental health • Young people •

To mark Parent Mental Health Day, the McPin Senior Operations Manager shares why kids tv shows can be more than just entertainment for the little ones.

Clare Walsby

“Mummy, are you crying?!”

It’s a school day morning, the familiar debates about uniform, breakfast and television are in full swing, but everything is paused while I consider this question. Because I am not so much crying as staring, with that desperate, recognising, “I-know-that-feeling” face, tears pouring down my cheeks – at a children’s TV show.

“A little bit”, I say, pulling myself together and reaching for another sock.

It’s Parental Mental Health Day. I know there will be loads of parents and carers out there  trying to keep a close eye on our own mental health while trying to educate our children about the feelings, moods and emotions that we ourselves were probably never taught about.

Which is where, it turns out, children’s television can come in really handy. I have been astonished recently at the amount of programmes for young children that attempt to cover mental health issues with delicacy, depth and humour. The ones that reduce me to that ‘gut-punch-recognition’ and full flow tears.

She cannot just ‘take the grey away’ (as so many shows would do) with a quick fix.

Whilst your immediate reactions may be a bit overwhelming (or amusing, depending on your children!), I’ve found that these 7-20 minutes of screentime can really help to share with your children what you might be going through, in a way that is relatable to them.

I thought that it might be helpful to share a couple of the best ones I have come across so far:

  • ‘Nova’s Colouring Out’ – Nova Jones, CBBC, Series 2, Episode 9.

Not heard of Nova Jones?  She’s an intergalactic pop sensation with an incredible wardrobe and a spaceship tour bus.  However, in this episode, her concerns and doubts pile up and the colour is, quite literally, taken out of her life.  The amazing visuals are one thing, but it is the revelation of her sister (and tour manager), that she cannot just ‘take the grey away’ (as so many shows would do) with a quick fix.

What is actually needed is time, patience and just ‘being’ – supporting and waiting out the storm.  Warning: there is a song, but please don’t let that put you off. This is the programme that brought about the pause and the tears that my child asked about.

  • ‘Space’ – Bluey, CBeebies and Disney+, Series 3, Episode 34.

Seven minutes – what can a programme really manage in seven minutes?  Surely not create a piece of deeply moving children’s animated television about childhood trauma?  With dogs as main characters? That’s what this episode of Bluey pulls off.

‘Space’ tells the story of Mackenzie, a sheepdog who may be processing a traumatic experience through playing ‘space’ with his friends Rusty and Jack.  It is impactful, gentle and shows how the understanding and kindness of friends can help to support healing.

  • ‘Army’ – Bluey, CBeebies and Disney+, Series 2, Episode 16.

Apologies, it’s Bluey again, but this episode deserves a mention due to its approach to neurodivergence and the impact the misunderstanding of which can have on mental health.  It’s Rusty and Jack again (Rusty is definitely going to be a true therapy dog when he grows up) – this time Rusty is inviting new friend Jack to play ‘army’ with him.

Jack is new and convinced through his previous interactions with education that he can’t “do what he’s told”.  What he really needs, as we discover, is a different, less judgemental approach to his way of learning.

“You know when Nova’s world went all grey?  Mummy sometimes feels like that…”

I am sure there are loads more (despite my concerns of “too much screen time”, our television watching is relatively limited), but these have really made an impact, and I hope they will help everyone trying to juggle their mental health with explaining it in ways that young minds can relate to.

These fantastic programmes are tools to do just that, giving you a frame of reference to share with your child – “You know when Nova’s world went all grey?  Mummy sometimes feels like that…”

Happy Parental Health Day, you’re doing an amazing job.

Getting involved in mental health research can help shape services, improve research, and even support your own mental health. Sign up to our involvement bulletin for upcoming opportunities – or if you’re 13-28 we have a friendly and supportive young person’s network too!

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