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How to Talk With Your Kids About Mental Health Concerns

Tips for having an open and honest conversation.

Key points

  • Talking openly about mental health concerns can reassure kids and help them learn to cope better.
  • Increased awareness can lead to greater compassion and can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
  • Cover the basics, provide reassurance, keep the child's age and maturity in mind, ensure that they safe, and reach out for help if needed.
Source: rmarmion/CanStockPhoto

If you’re a parent and you or another family member has experienced mental health concerns, you probably have felt unsure about how to talk with your children about this issue. Should you discuss it at all? If you do, what should you say?

Your first reaction may be to avoid talking with your children about the topic of mental illness because you're afraid it will scare or upset them. However, talking openly about these issues can reassure kids and help them learn to cope better because they will have a greater understanding of what the person with the mental health concern is going through. Also, increased awareness can lead to greater compassion and can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

When you do decide to open the door to a conversation with your kids about mental health concerns, here are several important points that can help you manage this situation more easily and with greater confidence.

1. Cover the basics. It’s often helpful to start with some simple facts about mental illnesses and dispel some common myths surrounding them. For example:

  • Mental illnesses are “real” illnesses, just like diabetes or epilepsy.
  • Mental illnesses are very common; one out of every four adults will have one.
  • It’s okay to talk about having a mental illness; it doesn’t have to be a secret.
  • There are very effective treatments for mental illnesses.
  • People with mental illnesses can and do get better.

2. Provide reassurance. Kids can have lots of worries about their family members who have a mental illness, and they may feel responsible for the person’s difficulties. Offer reassurance and reduce their fears by telling them:

  • It’s not your fault that your family member has a mental illness.
  • You can’t “catch” a mental illness from someone else.
  • You won’t necessarily get the same illness as your family member when you grow up.
  • It’s not up to you to make the person with the mental illness feel better.

3. Keep the child’s age and level of maturity in mind. How you talk about mental health issues will vary for children of different ages and developmental levels. For example, a mature 10-year-old may be able to understand a parent’s mental illness better than an immature 13-year-old.

Here are a few considerations for talking about mental illness with different age groups:

  • Pre-schoolers: Very young children only want clear and simple information. They may ask about someone who behaves oddly or wonder why a family member is sad or angry.
  • Pre-teens: Older children may want more specific information and may ask more detailed questions about mental health issues or a family member’s behavior. It’s important to be honest and direct and give them factual information and plenty of reassurance.
  • Teens: Teenagers can typically handle much more detailed information about mental illness and will ask very specific, often pointed questions. They may turn more to peers than to family for answers, so they can often be misinformed. Be sure to be specific and responsive when they have questions.

4. Make sure your kids feel safe and secure. No matter what age your children are, make sure they feel safe, secure, and comfortable when discussing mental health issues. Watch their reactions, let them ask questions, and slow down or repeat information if they appear confused. If the conversation upsets them, you can always stop and come back later after they have had time to process some of the information.

5. If things become difficult. If you’re unsure about how to talk about mental health issues with your children, or you begin to worry they are becoming overly distressed by these issues within the family, seek assistance from a mental health professional. Child or family therapy can be very helpful in these circumstances. It’s also a good idea to teach your kids how to call for help in a crisis or emergency, just in case such a situation should arise.

There’s no set formula for how to discuss mental health issues with your kids. There's also never a “perfect” time to start the conversation. But if you’re supportive, loving, and honest when you approach the topic, you’ll be off to a really great start.

Copyright David Susman 2022

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