Talking to children about mental health can be difficult. Many parents don’t want to expose their children to something so complicated and overwhelming; however, opening the conversation can remove the stigma and much of the stress associated with it.
According to the CDC, mental health issues in adolescents have increased across America. In fact, one in six children aged two to eight has a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. Diagnoses of depression and anxiety specifically have increased; in 2003, 5.4 percent of children were diagnosed; that rose to 8.4 percent in 2012—and it still continues to rise.
It’s essential to learn how to talk about mental health beginning at a young age. Here’s how to do it.
Starting the Conversation
If you’re unsure of how to bring up the topic of mental health with your child, try relating it to their everyday life. Some television shows, movies, and books feature characters with mental health challenges; talk about those. If you hear your child or one of their friends use the word “crazy” in a derogatory way, explain why that’s not the correct usage. You can even use celebrities or people your child looks up to as a way to start the conversation, since many of them are being more open about their own struggles.
If someone in your family or a close family friend has a mental health condition, you can start the conversation there. Ask your child what they know about the situation and if they have any questions.
Opening up in a discussion with your child can even be as simple as asking them how they’re feeling. They may share emotions or symptoms such as fatigue, stress, or nervousness, which could be related to a mental health disorder; this could open the door for you to dive deeper into the topic.
Use the Right Language
When you’re talking to your child about mental health, make sure you are using age-appropriate language. Don’t overwhelm them with definitions or statistics; instead, find simpler ways to illustrate the conditions.
For instance, you can explain that just how the body gets sick, so does the mind, and sometimes a doctor is needed in order to feel better. You can also compare depression with the feeling of sadness or anxiety with stress. But clarify that it might last longer and the feelings are often magnified.
While you can talk to your child at any age, the way you’d talk to a four-year-old will differ from how you’d discuss this topic with a 14-year-old. Generally, children at these age ranges can handle these types of conversations:
Children at this age have a lower ability to understand complex ideas such as mental health conditions. They’re more likely to notice the physical aspects of anxiety or depression in others, like crying, yelling, or sleeping more often. You can share the reason behind the behavior but limit detailed information.
Older children will want more explanations and have more questions; they may even start to experience the symptoms themselves. At this age, it’s important to answer their questions in a straightforward manner, without judgement, bias, or negative tone.
Teens are typically able to understand a bit more when it comes to mental health. Teens are more likely to feel the stress from the workload of school, getting into college, and pressure from their peers. Make sure you establish an open dialogue with them (rather than a one-sided lecture) about conditions and triggers. That way, they feel comfortable coming to you if they have questions or concerns about their own health. It also helps to include them in finding solutions to their stressors; for instance, online charter schools can help ease much of the stress students feel, since it allows them to work at their own pace, and take their time on days when they’re feeling “off.”
Give Them Space to Speak
Once you begin talking to your child about mental health, remember that it’s a conversation. Their feelings about anxiety and depression can vary depending on their understanding. Lead the way by talking openly about your own emotions and struggles.
Create an environment that encourages your child to talk about their feelings. Don’t pressure them into discussing things. If they do decide to open up, give them your full attention; make eye contact and don’t interrupt or tell them how they should feel. Make sure they know that feelings are neither right nor wrong and validate their emotions or concerns.
Expressing how they feel can help children work through and learn from their struggles. A child needs to express their emotions (even difficult ones) in order to better understand and learn from them.
If your child has indicated they’re struggling with depression or anxiety, consult their doctor. For more parenting advice, sign up for our newsletter.