Football legend Rio Ferdinand: We need to teach kids it’s OK to feel sad sometimes


Rio Ferdinand thinks letting go of perfection is key as a parent.

“Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy, in that we put too much pressure on ourselves to have the perfect scenario and situation in life, which is just impossible,” says the former Manchester United and England legend, who’s now a regular TV pundit for TNT Sports as well as being a father of five.

“There’s always going to be a bump or a curveball thrown at you, so you’ve just got to be aware that it’s coming, because it’s inevitable. And don’t expect perfection.”

Ferdinand has teamed up with McDonald’s and BBC Children In Need on a campaign to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13-19). It sees the brand’s iconic yellow smiles removed from Happy Meal® boxes, to symbolise that it’s OK for children not to feel happy all the time.

Youngsters will be able to express how they’re feeling with alternative yellow stickers included in the limited-edition boxes, which also feature a QR code linking parents and carers to the McDonald’s ‘family hub’, where they can find more information and conversation prompts.

When it comes to talking with kids about emotions, Ferdinand, 45 – who is dad to sons Lorenz, 17 and Tate, 14, and daughter Tia, 12, from his marriage to late wife Rebecca, who died from breast cancer at age 34 in 2015, and also has three-year-old son Cree and baby daughter Shea with his wife Kate, 32 – adds: “I think a lot of parents struggle with how to start a conversation – and I was one of those parents before I had help and really got myself into the whys and dos and don’ts around mental health and communicating.”

A survey to accompany the campaign found almost half (48%) of UK children felt like they must be happy all the time, even if they don’t want to be. Plus, 74% of the parents polled said it’s important to stop their children feeling sad, with 63% saying they always encourage them to be happy.

“I’m probably falling into that as well sometimes, and we’re doing it with the right intentions,” says Ferdinand. However, he is keen for his children to know they can talk to him about anything whenever they need to, and that it’s OK to be honest about their feelings.

“It’s about making them feel comfortable and making them understand that having sad moments or being emotional, or not feeling as strong as you normally do, is OK. But also, how do you get yourself out of that state as well?”

He’s done a lot to highlight mental wellbeing in recent years – including his Bafta-winning BBC documentary Being Mum And Dad, and 2020 docuseries Tipping Point, which explored racism, homophobia and mental health in football.

It’s something that’s now woven into family life for the Ferdinands, especially when it comes to creating opportunities to talk.

“I think going out for walks as a family is really good, because you end up talking. Some people find it hard to talk sitting down across the table, it’s a bit too formal. But going out for a walk, they can get a lot off their chest,” says Ferdinand, who also values family mealtimes when possible.

“If you can’t do all of them – breakfast, lunch and dinner – then find one of them, or at least a couple of times a week where you can have those conversations.

“It doesn’t have to be one of those dig-in, prying conversations – it’s just talking about general stuff, and one of the kids at some point might open up about something, but you’ve given them the platform to do that.”

He agrees there are now a lot of pressures that weren’t around for previous generations, including around social media. This means more for parents and carers to think about too.

“There’s more responsibility on parents now to be across a lot of what your kids are doing. I look back to when I was a kid – like most, your mum and dad would go to work, you go school, and you’ve got probably a three or four-hour window after school before they get home and provide dinners on the table. So, you did a lot of stuff on your own. Whereas now, parents have got a lot more to deal with,” says Ferdinand.

“There’s social media, there’s people contacting your kids or having access to your kids, that we’ve never been used to in our generation. There’s also a lot more pressure of having to keep up with the Joneses through social media, the false narratives and false images to keep up with.”

Ferdinand is a big advocate for self-care and finding the things in life that help you take care of your wellbeing. How does he approach role-modelling this for his kids?

“I think showing them sometimes is a bit more powerful than just always telling them, preaching to them,” he says. “We [me and Kate] go to the gym three or four times a week, and we openly tell the kids that’s our little hour in a day for ourselves, to help clear your mind and have positive thoughts and whatnot – and what’s yours, what do you do?

“My daughter loves horse riding, so she finds hers in going horse riding and going to the stables. And everyone will be different, some people want to read a book and whatnot. It could be walking the dog or walking with your family, whatever it might be.

“But also, communicating how you feel to people is very, very powerful,” Ferdinand adds. “And we encourage our kids to be strong in that department, and then try not to make them feel on edge or anxious about opening up the conversation around, ‘Actually, I’m not feeling ok today’.

“And listen – we haven’t got that down to a tee, it’s not perfect in our house. But we definitely do try and instil in our kids.”

Rio Ferdinand has teamed up with McDonald’s and BBC Children In Need, as the iconic smile disappears from Happy Meal® boxes for the first time ever this Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13-19).


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