Mental health is a part of life, just like physical health. As your children get older, they may begin to have questions about mental health, especially if someone in your family has a diagnosis. Having an honest, age-appropriate conversation can help them navigate their curiosity and teach them how to make their own mental health a priority.
What does mental health mean?
Mental health refers to your psychological and emotional well-being. Some common mental health conditions are anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In the same way that healthy habits like eating nutritious foods and exercising can contribute to your physical health, habits like speaking with a therapist and taking medication regularly can help you maintain mental health.
The earlier your children can learn to incorporate these healthy habits into their everyday life, the better equipped they will be to cope with any mental health challenges they experience throughout their life.
Why talking about mental health is important
When you start a conversation about mental health with your child, it helps to break the stigma and shame around mental illness. Children may be hesitant to open up to you when they are struggling. By creating an environment in your home where open discussion about mental health is encouraged, your child will learn to feel comfortable with talking to you about any mental health issues they are struggling with.
How to start a conversation about mental health
The following tips will help you start a conversation with your child about mental health.
- Set aside time to talk about it.
Don’t rush through the conversation, and avoid distractions like scrolling through your phone. Talking about mental health is important and if your child wants to share something with you, it’s important that you listen intently so you can fully understand their feelings and experiences.
- Use emojis or an image chart to help young children identify their feelings.
Younger children may have a harder time expressing their emotions in words. Using emojis or images to help them describe their feelings can be helpful.
- Ask open-ended questions.
Rather than asking, “How was your day?” ask open-ended questions like, “What did you enjoy today?” or “What was difficult about today?” Questions like this can encourage a more productive discussion.
- Create a list of trusted adults they can speak to.
Even though you are their parent, they may not always feel comfortable with telling you everything, and that’s okay. Work with them to identify trusted adults they can speak with if you aren’t available or if they are uncomfortable. This can include another family member, teacher, guidance counselor, coach, or pastor.
- Share your personal experience.
If your child has questions about why you see a therapist or what your medication is for, be honest with them. Make sure to be age-appropriate. For example, young children may not understand what depression is, but they know what sadness feels like.
- Don’t jump to offering solutions.
As a parent, it’s natural to want to fix things, especially when it comes to your child. However, jumping immediately to solutions may make your child feel like they are not being heard. Allow them to fully express themselves and complete their thoughts. When they are finished, validate their feelings, acknowledge the ways they have already tried to fix the problem, and work together to come up with a solution.
- Know when it’s time to speak to a professional.
Understanding the symptoms and warning signs of a mental health condition is important. If you recognize a sudden change in your child’s behavior like emotional outbursts or struggling in school, there may be something more going on. You should seek immediate help if they begin talking about harming themselves or others, or if they say they are hearing or seeing things others cannot.
Counseling and treatment for mental health
Regardless of what your child may be experiencing, there is help. Counseling can help you and your child navigate difficult feelings and experiences. Everyone’s journey towards mental health is different. A professional like a counselor, psychologist, and even your pediatrician can recommend the right treatment for you.