Mental health is an important topic to discuss with your kids, but it is not an easy one to cover, no matter how old they are.
It can be just as difficult for them to approach you if they feel like their mental health is struggling.
Even though society is finally starting to lift some of the stigmas surrounding mental health, they have not fully lifted yet, and when you combine that with a child’s developing brain and hormones — if they are a teen — can make this topic difficult to handle.
However, while this topic can be difficult to tackle, it is still crucial that you try. If you are having trouble deciding how to go about this, we have put this guide together for you to help you talk to your kids about mental health.
Mental Health Bias
Before you sit down with your kids, think about if you have any stigmas or biases about mental health.
You need to know what these might be before talking to them, so you can ensure you leave your own bias out of the conversation. To determine if you have any bias, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have negative opinions about any mental health conditions?
- How do I feel about my mental health?
- Do I have any fears about mental health? Where do they come from?
- If you ever sought care for your mental health, ask yourself what that experience was for you.
By asking yourself those questions, you can get some deeper insights into how you feel about mental health. Spending time thinking about this can make it easier for you to sit down and talk to your kids about it.
Many people who have a mental health condition might think that the condition is their fault or it is part of their personality that cannot change.
That is part of the stigma and misinformation that surrounds mental health conditions. Teach them that these conditions are common and they are not something that is just wrong with them as a person.
If you model to your children that emotions, good and bad, are healthy to talk about, they might feel more comfortable opening up to you about them.
Share your emotions with your kids, as well as any challenges, successes, and failures with them. However, it is important to make sure that you appear to be coping well with these emotions before sharing them, especially if your children are younger.
Sharing more extreme emotions in the moment can be overwhelming for a child, especially a younger one, so make sure you have composed yourself before sharing with them extreme anger or sadness.
If you suffer from depression or anxiety, you might feel like you need to hide it from your kids.
However, children are a lot more perceptive than many adults think they are. They might not know exactly what is going on with you, but they can tell something is wrong, and if you sweep it under the rug, that can lead to them internalizing their own biases about mental health.
Instead, be open with them about your mental health in a way they can understand at their age. By doing this, you are helping to show them that mental health is not something to be ashamed of and the stigmas are not valid.
Since there are so many stigmas about mental health, kids can feel ashamed to talk about their mental health problems, no matter how open you are about yours.
When your kids come to you to talk about worries, impulses, compulsions, obsessions, or anything else, listen with interest and empathize.
Many mental health conditions run in families, and if this is the case for you, talking to your kids about how certain relatives also struggle with this can help.
It can also give them more trusted adults to talk to about their mental health and show them they are not alone. No matter how old they are, this can be extremely reassuring.
If your child is showing signs of depression or risky behaviors, do not avoid the topic because you are afraid to make it worse.
Be direct with your kids, talk to them about what is going on, and show them you care about what is happening. If necessary, do not be afraid to seek the help of a mental health professional, and take the time to share with your child that there is no shame in therapy.
According to NAMI, about half of chronic mental health conditions start by the time someone is 14 years old. Therefore, it is crucial that you teach your kids good coping skills now.
Help them find the self-care things that can make them feel a little better and teach them why they are not selfish for exercising self-care now. Encourage them to try different things that could become part of their coping and self-care routine. These include:
- Bubble baths
- Deep breathing
Also, make sure you model healthy self-care habits now for your kids. They will mimic what they watch you doing, so no matter how much you preach self-care to them, if they never see you doing it, they may end up copying you instead.
If they struggle with panic attacks, you can try downloading a panic attack app that will guide them through breathing to help them get through the attack a little easier.
Your kids might not be ready to talk to you about what is going on with them right away, and you need to respect that choice.
Make sure they know that you love them and are ready to listen when they are ready to talk. Also, if they have a journal as part of their coping mechanism, never read it without their permission. Sometimes you need to prove to your kids that you trust them, and respecting their boundaries is one of the best ways to do that.