Talking to your child about mental health is the first step to normalizing the importance of taking care of our whole self, including our emotional and mental well being. It also helps children and teens practice empathy and understanding, instead of fear or judgement, when they begin to notice changes in mom, dad, siblings or friends. With so many myths and misconceptions surrounding mental health, it’s easy for young people to feel anxious and confused.
With this in mind, here are some tips on how you can talk to your child or teen about mental health.
Your child is most likely noticing a change or difference in behavior from mom, dad, or another relative struggling with mental health. There is no point in keeping it a secret. Be open about the diagnosis and give it a name (depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety…). Doing so will help alleviate some fear and insecurities as well as decrease assumptions. It also helps kids externalize these struggles in a way that helps them understand that just like the flu or a virus, it can be treated. A mental health diagnosis does not define a person, but it does help bring about a level of understanding and ability to identify an adeqaute treatment plan.
Alleviate Fault or Responsibility
Most kids naturally feel like they want to help or fix mom or dad. They may even feel like something they did or said caused their loved one to not be well, turning into inappropriately placed guilt and confusion. Reassure your child and explain that these struggles are not their fault nor their responsibility.
Invite Their Honesty
While you may feel you need to shield your child from unpleasant topics or conversations, the likelihood of them knowing something isn’t right is pretty high. They may be noticing an array of behaviors such as quick changes in moods, avoidance, or excessive sleep patterns. Your kids should feel free to openly ask questions and express their feelings, whether these feelings be fear, sadness, or anger. Listen to what they say without judging what they say. Try not to make excuses for the recent behaviors of others or avoid the topic but, but help them better understand the circumstances and what their loved one is going through.
Your child may have lots of them, so invite them to ask. If they don’t feel comfortable asking questions face-to-face, use a journal. They can write down any questions they want, and you’ll write the answer and give it back to them. Knowing they can come to you and that you are still the parent will give them a much-needed sense of calm, safety and security. It’s important we educate our children about mental health whenever possible, not only to increase their awareness but also minimize the myths around mental health and reduce the stigma. Creating opportunities for open dialogue will also help your child feel safe with coming to you in the future should they ever feel the need.
Communicate at a Level that is Age Appropriate
Preschool-age children will need different language than teenagers. They will need less details, whereas older children will want more details. School-age children will take the information shared and begin to worry what it means for them and the family. Be prepared to answer many questions concerning their safety and security.
For Teens – you will have to follow your teen’s lead. Some may speak openly, already aware to a certain extent about mental health issues. Some may seem withdrawn and not speak much at all. You will want to continue to check in with them to make sure they are doing okay.
Talking to your kids about mental health isn’t always easy, but keeping these tips in mind will give you an opportunity to share important information and offer love, support, and guidance.
Alyssa Najera, LCSW