It's important to talk to children about mental health, especially because they are naturally curious and can easily be affected by problems as they grow. Explaining mental illness to children may seem awkward and daunting as mental health is a sensitive topic, even for adults. Broaching the topic early on can help children avoid myths, misinformation, and stigma about mental health. It's important as a parent or a caregiver to help children understand that mental illnesses are real and are treatable.
Here's how you can talk to your children about their mental health:
- Start as early as possible.
- Communicate at your child's level.
- Be straightforward.
- Create a safe space.
- Know when to seek professional help.
Keep on reading to learn more about each item.
How to talk to children about mental health
It may not seem necessary to start explaining mental illness to young children. However, it's more difficult to talk to them about mental illness once it happens if you don't ease in early and have regular conversations.
Make sure opportunities for explaining mental illness to children are frequent and natural. You could bring it up when you're out on a walk together or doing an activity your child likes.
Provide a safe place
Whether or not you think your child may be struggling, it's best to find ways of expressing your concerns or starting a conversation without seeming judgmental. Create a safe space by being reassuring and calm when you talk to them about mental health. Take the time to listen to them and validate how they feel.
Communicate at the appropriate level of understanding
Different children have different needs, and those needs vary according to their age and level of understanding. It may be helpful to consider the following points:
- Preschool-age children. Because of their young age, they need fewer details and less information because of their limited means of understanding. Focus on things they can see and use visible emotions or reactions like crying or yelling.
- School-age children. Older children may start asking more questions that demand more specific answers. Their understanding includes concern about the safety of their family and friends. Reassure them about their concerns and feelings, and be sure to answer them as honestly and directly as you can.
- Teenagers. When it comes to explaining mental health to teenagers, keep in mind that they are more capable of handling complex information and asking more difficult questions. They will respond more positively to open dialogue. So when you talk, make sure it's less of a one-sided lecture and more of a give-and-take conversation.
If you notice warning signs in your child, it's best to directly initiate a conversation. When you ask them questions, be thoughtful and supportive. Below are signs to watch out for if you think your child is in need of support:
- Sadness that lasts more than two weeks
- Attempts at self-harm
- Experiencing overwhelming fear (panic attack)
- Aggression or getting into fights
- Not eating
- Reckless behavior
- Mood swings
- Lack of interest in hobbies and activities
- Drastic changes in personality or behavior
Seek professional help
It’s never too early to seek out mental health support for children. Having helpful resources early on is your child's best bet in building the tools they need to deal with mental health problems.
Are you noticing signs that your child is experiencing mental or emotional distress? Talk to a St. Joseph Health pediatrician or ask a St. Joseph and Texas A&M Health Network primary care physician for a referral to a child psychiatrist.