The conversation about mental health and mental health issues is not just for adults. Half of lifetime mental health issues begin before age 14 and many disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are being diagnosed at younger ages than before. However, it can be hard for parents and other caregivers to know how to talk to kids about mental health. What should you share? When is a good time to have the conversation? How do you make these topics make sense to a child? Here are some steps for successful conversations about mental health with children and adolescents.
Remember that the topic of mental health is not limited to mental illness. While mental illness is extremely important to discuss, the topic of mental health is not limited to the negative. Everyone has mental health just like everyone has physical health. All children (and adults!) have strong emotions and complicated thoughts that they may struggle to understand. Talking about mental health with kids includes promoting empathy, problem-solving, and awareness of emotions.
Use analogies to a medical problem. When explaining mental illnesses, think about how you would talk about a physical illness with a child. Use an analogy to a medical problem that your child is familiar with based on their own experience or the experience of someone they know such as a friend, family member, or even a character from a movie. Framing psychological disorders like you would any other health condition can help destigmatize and demystify the world of mental health for children.
Use media stories or characters in movies/TV shows. There are many popular movies and TV shows that illustrate mental health concerns, from a healthy relationship with emotions to diagnosed psychological disorders. Useful media varies based on your child’s age and their experience with mental health, but here are some of my favorites: Inside Out, Big Hero 6, Atypical, Steven Universe, and Iron Man 3 (yes, even superheroes struggle with their mental health!).
Think about the setting for the conversation. This is entirely dependent on your child or adolescent’s preferences. Where does your child feel most safe? Would it be better to talk to them at home, in their bedroom, while on a walk, after picking them up from school? Who would they want (or not want!) to be present when talking about mental health and mental illness. If this is your first time broaching these topics or you have concerns about your child’s mental health, make sure you have enough time to talk with them, uninterrupted, for as long as they need.
Normalize their experience. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses and mental health care, so it is incredibly important that you normalize the experience of mental health problems for your children, especially if they have a psychological diagnosis of their own. This can be done by letting them know how many other children experience the same problems (1 in 6 children under the age of 8 have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder, 15% of US teenagers have been diagnosed with depression, etc).Additionally, if your child’s family members and friends also have struggled with their mental health, normalizing can be encouraging them to be open about their experiences (as much as they are comfortable) and letting your child know that mental illness is not something that needs to be hidden or cause shame.
Ask open-ended questions. It is important to continue checking in with your child throughout the conversations that you have about mental health. Try reframing your closed questions as open-ended questions. This can look like changing “does that make sense to you?” (closed question) to “how are you feeling about talking to me about this?” (open question). Another example is asking “When did you feel happy/sad/lonely/nervous today?” rather than “Are you feeling okay?” Open questions invite conversation and participation from your child. (And remember, asking directly about your child’s experiences with symptoms like depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts will NOT make them more prone to these thoughts and feelings. It’s always better to ask.)
Ask for help from a professional. Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional. If your child is struggling and you don’t know what to do, it might be time to schedule an appointment with a therapist or psychologist. If your child is having an emergency, please call 911 or reach out to the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are in the Hampton Roads area, we offer low-cost therapy and assessment at the Psychological Services Center. Additionally, Psychology Today is a wonderful resource for finding a therapist in your area.