Discussing Mental Health with Children of All Ages

As mental health becomes less taboo, parents may want or even need to broach the subject with their children more often. Whether they have a classmate, a family member, or struggle with mental health issues of their own, the discussion can be a tricky minefield. But there are ways to approach the subject which are more effective and helpful than others, regardless of who you’re talking about.

How to Start

Sometimes finding a way to initiate a conversation on mental health is the hardest part. But in her article for Today’s Parent, Daniela Payne has several suggestions.

“A movie that features a character with mental health challenges or a celebrity who has had a positive experience could make for good entry points. Kids hear all sorts of stereotypes in the school yard, so if you overhear your child or their friends using a derogatory term like “crazy,” use that moment as a way to start the conversation.”

The Mental Health Association of Southeastern PA published a “Resource for Parents and Guardians” helping children understand Mental Illness. The Resource pamphlet has suggestions to specifically help when parents or other family members are the ones with a mental illness. “…start by asking children why they think their mom/dad sometimes acts “different” or “strange,” then use their comments or questions as an opening to talk more about mental illness”.

These are good openers whether the topic is concrete (discussing a specific person with a mental health issue) or general. If there is no fiction that helps spark a conversation, you can begin by talking about your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Modeling good behavior and healthy responses to feelings can create an encouraging and safe environment for these discussions to happen more organically. Give the child your full attention, make eye contact, and resist reactive or negative behavior, regardless of where your talk takes you.

An important element is keeping the language age-appropriate. While very young children likely won’t understand details about brain chemicals and physiology, these terms may help a middle or high schooler understand mental illness better.

What Should I Say? What Shouldn’t I Say?

In the article for Today’s Parent, Jill Dennison, a mental health promotion and resilience facilitator, emphasizes the importance of discussing mental health rather than limiting yourself to mental illness. Dennison says the difference between these two words can change the way a child responds to the entire conversation. Because health effects everyone, it is relatable and important to everyone, whether they have an illness or not. Make sure that they know mental health is the same as physical health—it simply affects a different part of the body.

In the Resource for Parents and Guardians, the Mental Health Association of Southeastern PA recommend that if a child is uncomfortable or uninterested, you should not force them to talk. Letting them know that you are available for conversation on their terms is more effective. Sometimes even providing them with reading materials of their own and leaving yourself open for questions is another route that works.

The Resource details more tips on verbal and behavioral responses, as well as helpful answer models to frequently asked questions. Regardless of their age, honesty will help the child trust you. Giving them information helps minimize anger, guilt, vulnerability, confusion and surprise.

And finally, if a child asks a question and you don’t know the answer, never make something up. Admitting you don’t know and agreeing to find out for them or with them is always better.

When is it the right age?

You don’t have to wait for an “incident” or for your child to come to you with questions about mental illness. As long as you use age-appropriate language and examples to which they can relate, a conversation on mental health can end the stigma against mental illness before it begins. Also regardless of the child’s age, you should let them know that there are no stupid questions.

In their article “Talking to Kids about Mental Illnesses”, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explains some of the easy ways to change your dialogue based on the age of the child. At preschool age, the child needs less information—statistics and abstract facts will not resonate with them. Children this young focus on things they can see. If they see someone who developed differently, or who acts in a way different from how they expect, they may have questions.

A school-aged child, on the other hand, will want more specifics. They may want to know the proper names for things, or how they work. Their concerns or questions are typically straightforward and related to specific family members or friends. Finally, teenagers are, in some ways, more difficult to talk with even though they are the oldest. They will have questions that go more in depth and may extend beyond what you already know. Be sure to talk openly with them, and let the discussion operate in a more give and take direction than a lecture.

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