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Talking to Children About Mental Health

Speaking to anyone, let alone our children, about mental health can feel uncomfortable. And it’s even further exacerbated when we are talking about their mental health. The reality is, the majority of mental health symptoms and diagnosis onset during childhood, adolescents, and young adulthood. Accordingly, it’s essential we have these conversations early to normalize the topic and have a great foundation to work from if/when we notice changes that might require a conversation and/or higher level of care.  

In the event you notice that your child has been behaving or seeming to feel a bit different from their normal self (i.e. more sad, down, anxious, withdrawn, stressed) here’s a few tips on how to best navigate the conversation.  

  1. Make an Analogy – A common response to when we do not feel well physically is to see a doctor. Sometimes making an analogy to a broken bone or a stomach ache can help decrease the stigma and notice we all need support for when we do not feel well. For example, you could share that  if you fall off your bike, we can help you feel better with a bandage and some ice. But somethings, if it’s a big fall, we need to go to the doctor to get medicine or a cast. 
  2. Normalize – Let your child know they are not alone. Here, you might do some research on the prevalence of mental health concerns and offer them in your conversation. Here is one to start – one in five youth aged 9–17 years has a diagnosable mental health. By normalizing the experience, you will combat the shame and guilt your child might feel for feeling this way and be more open to support. 
  3. Listen and Validate – It is like the old adage states – there is a reason we have two ears and one mouth. Make sure to come into the conversation with a curious and open mind. We want to make sure we do not come in with judgment and further stigmatize mental health accidentally. This can be difficult as we often blame ourselves for the challenges our children encounter. Ask good open ended questions and listen to understand their experience. Use empathy, and when appropriate, potentially talk about times you may have struggled with similar challenges. Children are used to new experiences (afterall, everything is new in their worlds), and having a trusting adult who stays by their side is what can instill confidence in navigating nearly any situation. 
  4. Assure them – Many children with mental health concerns think it is their fault. They may think it is unchangeable and “just who they are.” You can further normalize that we all experience mental health challenges and that nothing is wrong with them. In fact, having emotions, good and bad, is part of being human. Just like we are healthy one day and have a cold the next, our mental wellness has ups and downs. 
  5. Discuss Options – You do not have to go at this alone. The important thing is to bring the conversation up. When you feel you are at a place to create a plan, make sure to present options for your child. Here, you might want to do a bit more research and be ready to discuss. Maybe make another analogy – just like when we have a fever we go to the doctor to get it checked, when we are feeling [stressed, sad, overwhelmed, etc] there are doctors who can help with that too. 
  6. Ask about Suicide – Unfortunately, the rates of death by suicide and suicidal thinking have increased amongst youth in the past decades. Hospitals and emergency rooms are seeing alarming increases in youth mental health concerns, especially in light of the past year and a half or so with the COVID-19 pandemic. Asking directly about suicide or suicidal thoughts is often avoided, as we think asking will cause the act, but this connection has been proven to be false. Asking about suicide may be a relief for your child. It shows you care and see them. Even if they are not feeling this way in the moment, by asking this question, your child will know that you are there for them if they, or a friend does experience suicidal thoughts. For more information on how to check-in about suicide and suicidal thoughts see here.
  7. Have the conversation – most important, if you think that something is a little “off” – be sure to have the conversation. And if you don’t feel comfortable, enlist any other supportive adult in your child’s life to do so (i.e. teacher, mentor, aunt/uncle, coach, or counselor). You can also always call a mental health provider for a consultation and discuss the best path forward. 

Your ability to have a healthy and productive conversation can go a long way in supporting your child while continuing to disrupt the stigma we have around mental health in society. Remember, parents would do anything to save their child from a life altering or life saving medical condition, the same has to be true of mental health. Should you want to learn more techniques, you can visit here or reach out to request an appointment with our team of clinicians. 

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