How to talk about mental health with your kids?
Many parents think that addressing mental health can be uncomfortable or unnecessary — but 13% to 20% of children struggle with a mental health disorder in any given year, and the pandemic has only made mental health challenges more common in people of all ages.
Whether you think your child is struggling with their mental health or not, it’s essential to address the topic when they’re still young. Learning how to teach your kids about mental health is a huge responsibility, but also an integral part of being a supportive parent.
Here’s how to talk about mental health without overwhelming your kids or causing them to shut down.
Create a safe environment
Before you talk to your kids about mental health, it’s important to create a safe environment. Aside from establishing a peaceful, inclusive space at home, think about where your children feel most comfortable. Maybe they tend to open up more at the park or, if they’re older, a quiet corner of a coffeehouse.
Head to that specific spot and approach the topic slowly if you want to gently guide them into a discussion about mental health.
If you want to ask your kids about their mental health, specifically, try sharing your own struggles with mental health first. Speak from your perspective instead of approaching the topic with an accusatory or worried tone.
Showing a willingness to be vulnerable will often help your kids open up and share their own experiences. Plus, it will reassure them that they aren’t alone and that there are many others who have walked this road before them.
Help your kids identify and voice their feelings by teaching them the words for different emotions at a young age. Most children learn emotions the same way they learn their shapes and colors.
It’s your responsibility to teach them more nuanced words in addition to ones like “sad” and “happy.” That way, they can put a name to their feelings and better communicate them. You can also use a feelings wheel or chart with images to help your little ones identify feelings in-the-moment.
If your children struggle to share their feelings, ask them to tell a story or share their high and low of the day. Allowing them to be creative and talk about themselves in the third-person might encourage them to share more.
You can also provide creative outlets like painting, drawing, dancing, and other activities to help your little ones explore their thoughts and emotions.
Once your kids open up and share their struggles with mental health, it’s best to avoid labeling the issue, even if you think their symptoms point to a certain illness. While your assumptions may be correct, you are not a doctor and can’t give them a diagnosis. You shouldn’t expect them to label or diagnose themselves, either.
Trying to do so will only put them in a box or make them ascribe to that label until it defines them, neither of which are healthy ways to talk about or handle mental health.
Your children might already have an idea of how they want to address their mental health problems. Be prepared to offer support in whatever way they need and brainstorm coping strategies to help them deal with uncomfortable feelings.
If they want to see a therapist or counselor, help them look for one or recommend a few who specialize in mental health issues. Together, you can find a solution, regardless of what that might look like.
Stopping the stigma
Battling mental health issues also means fighting the stigma against them. By learning how to talk about mental health with your kids, you’ll help raise a generation that’s open to discussing the topic.
More importantly, your kids will learn to support themselves and others who are struggling with their mental and emotional health. With your help, the next generation can put an end to the stigma.