Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you grew up reading books starring an endearing hungry caterpillar, a mischievous cat in a hat or a plump bear feening for honey. These adorable characters taught us fundamental skills like counting, rhyming and social etiquette, but the light-hearted lessons rarely went beneath the surface of life’s more complex realities. Siblings and co-authors, Omar Mian and Dr. Rubina Mian, feel it’s time that parents, caregivers and teachers initiate conversations about relevant affairs that children face today—such as stress, anxiety, fear, suicide and more. Some parents might argue that these controversial topics are too intense for young minds, but statistics show that children are falling victim to mental health issues at an earlier age than ever before. According to the Office of National Statistics, one in ten children in the UK suffer from mental health problems like stress, anxiety or depression. In addition, the YoungMinds children’s mental health charity reported that 1 million children (between the ages of 5-15) in the UK alone suffer from stress. With The Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer revealing that three-quarters of mental illnesses start in childhood (50% of adult mental health problems starting before 15 years of age), it’s not surprising that the authors are urging parents and teachers to start discussions at an early age.
Despite the heavy material, the authors inject their books (for ages 3-7) with the same playful humour, animated drawings, entertaining storyline and simplistic words you would find in any children’s book. For example, their first book “The Stress Goblin’s Hat” (colorfully illustrated by Graham Evans) depicts a Stress Goblin who loses his hat one day to a gust of wind. The naughty hat searches for heads to land on, making the wearer stressed. Throughout the adventure, the book discusses situations that trigger stress in kid-friendly terms while suggesting how to deal with these emotions (such as talking to people about their feelings). The book aims to help children identify stress quickly through physical symptoms (like sweaty palms or feeling their face turn red) and actions (throwing toys or yelling) so they can open up to others and cope before it’s too late.
Stress in childhood can lead to developmental complications such as bedwetting, nightmares, a lowered immune system, difficulties in learning and tragically, even suicide. Child suicide may seem inconceivable, but the sobering truth is that it’s happening everywhere around the world. In Japan, suicide is the leading cause of child death. The number of calls from children to NSPCC’s Childline is dramatically increasing and statistics of child suicide in the U.K. have doubled in the past 8 years. “Children are being taught relaxation techniques and mindfulness, which is great, but unless they understand what’s going on, it’s like putting a plaster on a wound that’s still bleeding. We need to address the root cause and start talking at the youngest possible age,” explains Dr. Rubina Mian, a research scientist who has been studying the effects of stress for over 25 years.
Tackling such a complex topic with your kids might seem daunting, but a helpful section for grownups in the second half of these books provides information on how to initiate discussions and help children overcome obstacles. This section has been edited by Professor Panos Votanis, a global expert on childhood trauma specializing in the ages from pre-school to adolescence. This section identifies signs to look out for, points to discuss and ways to alleviate stress (through the use of distractions like listening to music, cuddling or using scent therapy). “We live in an era where children are more susceptible to stress, thanks to increased peer pressure caused by social media and aggressive advertising. Unfortunately, parents and teachers who are also becoming more preoccupied are not able to pick up on the subtle signs that children exhibit. Before we know it, a child has committed suicide. We all need to recognize signs of stress and the second section of our books can help with this.”
Don’t misunderstand, these authors love classic tales. “They are magical and enchanting. We love them! Traditionally, they’ve depicted serious topics such as why children should avoid the woods at night or to resist being enchanted by sweet-talking strangers, but messages created hundreds of years ago may not be topical for the challenges affecting children in the 21st Century.” Omar & Dr. Rubina Mian simply want to update modern fiction to equip both children and grownups with the information needed to deal with today’s difficulties. “After all, how many poisoned apples and evil queens do we meet wandering the 21st Century?” quips Omar Mian.
The authors’ second book “The Sugar Thief” educates kids and adults on the preventable disease plaguing more youth than we realize: tooth decay. Writer Omar Mian—previously a dentist—reports some surprising facts. Tooth decay is the number one reason children are admitted into hospitals in the UK. In fact, from 2016-2017, there were 42,911 multiple-teeth extractions under anesthesia in kids under 18 years old—costing the NHS £36.2 million (an increase from previous years). “Children shouldn’t be admitted into hospitals to have their decayed teeth extracted. It’s a traumatic situation for a child to undergo that is entirely preventable. Not to mention the small (but quantifiable) risk of death associated with a general anesthetic.”
Omar Mian and Dr. Rubina Mian are excited to continue publishing books that deal with more health subjects (such as eyesight, earaches and tummy aches), which they hope to publish by early 2020. “They take a little longer to do as we involve top notch professors in the relevant areas and all this takes time,” the authors share. “We want fairy stories that address mental health to be a part of everyday growing up, so there is no stigma.”
They’re even working on transforming these books into plays and interactive workshops. “There are heroes and villains and lots of fun storylines that are even more fun when acted out. This adds a whole new dimension to our stories,” says Omar Mian.
What makes these books so unique is that they are designed to be read by adults, as well as children—informing both so they are encouraged to engage in crucial conversations. We tend to think of stress as something only grownups deal with, but children equally feel the pain of bullying, pressure from exams and fear of losing someone they love. But unlike adults, children are not mentally developed enough to deal with their emotions. Instead, they depend on grownups to help them. If adults themselves struggle with fear and shame when talking about their own mental health problems, imagine how challenging it must be for children.
Even if your child doesn’t suffer from mental health concerns, these progressive books teach kids to recognize symptoms in others so they can help someone in need, like giving them a hug. It’s easy for parents to forget how much our own actions affect children when we are under stress ourselves.
Regardless of how much we’d like to protect our children from the harsh realities of life, they will continue to encounter mental health issues as they grow up. Luckily, authors Omar Mian and Dr. Rubina Mian are equipping us with an engaging, heartwarming and easy-to-digest book to help open up the lines of communication—allowing us to provide our children with the support and education we could have used ourselves when we were younger. Doing so will only destroy the shame and stigma associated with mental health and encourage children who are suffering to come forward more quickly.