Talking to kids about mental health – yours, or in general – can feel awkward. What’s OK to say? What isn’t? How young is too young to start the conversation?
Talking helps children cope
According to the organization Children of Parents with a Mental Illness, “It is common for parents to think it’s better to avoid talking to children about their mental illness, to protect them from stress and confusion. Yet research shows that when parents talk openly about their struggles, in language their child can understand, it actually helps the child to cope better.”
Having these conversations, both about a parent’s mental health and the child’s, can help the child better understand what mental health is and reduce the stigma that often follows mental health issues. Dr. Alison Jones, a Marshfield Clinic Health System child psychiatrist, says that talking with children about emotions can be a good early way to help children understand emotional and mental health.
“You’re seeing it even in kindergarten curriculum now, talking with kids about emotions, about empathy, about what it means to feel and how to process emotions,” Jones said. “This helps kids understand emotions are normal and OK, and parents can do the same kind of work at home.”
Jones said parents know their kids best, but in general, it’s good to start talking about mental health early and openly, particularly if there are suspected issues for the child, or the parent struggles with mental illness. If you’re a parent with depression and need to take a nap during the day or have some quiet time, talk to your kids about why.
“When having conversations about something more serious, like suicide, for example, parents should use their best judgement,” Jones said. “Emotions are real and should be talked about, but the conversation should include age-appropriate language.”
Create a supportive environment
For children struggling with mental health, research shows that having at least one supportive person that will listen and empathize with the child can make a world of difference, Jones said. Kids need to know what they’re feeling is natural and appropriate to talk about.
In talking with your kids, Jones suggests asking open-ended questions, which gives them room to choose their own words and elaborate on their feelings. She also said talking with your child’s teacher and their primary care provider can be a good place to start if you’re unsure about the signs and symptoms your child is displaying.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, talk with an expert.