Most people think of sex or death as major conversations that need preparation, but we suggest a third, less talked about but equally important topic – mental illness. The way you speak with your child about mental illness will not only dictate their relationship with mental health now and in the future, but can actually do good for the world. How? Here are the “Why, When, Who, Where and What” you should discuss when talking to your child about mental health.
Why should you talk with your child about mental health?
Children’s views of the world are fundamentally different from the views of adults. One example is that young children are egocentric, and therefore lack the ability to see the world through other’s perspectives. That might cause them to assume that whatever is going on has happened because of them. A classic example is children assuming that their parents are getting divorced because of something that they did wrong. In this case, it is important that you assure them that mental illness is no one’s fault.
Kids also tend to rely on their imagination. A child who experiences a traumatic event (e.g. a relative’s burst of rage), might try to fill the gaps of knowledge with their imagination. A concern may be that they come to a conclusion that is significantly worse than what actually occurred. While it is impossible to prepare your kid for everything, and unnecessary (even impossible) to explain everything to a child, it is important not to shy away from the conversation when it’s needed. Children are much more aware when something emotional is going on around them than we tend to give them credit for. Pretending that “nothing’s wrong” when clearly something is wrong, is actually more harmful to children than just acknowledging the difficult truth about the situation.
When should you talk with your child about mental health?
Even if you prefer not to speak with your child about mental health, a time might come when the conversation becomes inevitable. Having the conversations early and often will make it much easier to address if and when a mental health situation arises. It also signals to your child that mental health issues are something that you are willing and open to discuss, so they will feel more free to come to you if they are experiencing something at home, at school or elsewhere. Unexpected events or encounters may trigger questions from your child, or you may decide you want to prepare your child for a new, upcoming experience. Maybe a new kid in class, a relative, or even you or your partner show signs of mental health disorders and you feel like it is important to talk about. You may never find a perfect time for this conversation, but aim for a time of day when your kid is concentrated and calm.
Where should the conversation take place?
Mental health is a sensitive issue that can be hard to understand. Can we really expect a child to intuitively understand the sources of behavioral changes that are happening inside other people’s minds? Kids might find mental health disorders scary or confusing, so it’s important that the child is at ease when having the conversation. The ideal location is a place where your kid feels comfortable and safe. You know best where that place could be.
Who should be involved?
As mentioned before, a talk about mental health with kids can be a delicate one. The people involved in the conversation should be adults whom the child trusts and feels comfortable around. That may be the kid’s parents, a parent and a teacher, a parent and a counselor, grandparents, or any other combination of trusted grown ups. All that matters is that the adults speaking with the kids are the ones they see as loving, authoritative figures.
What should you say?
After establishing the setting, let’s talk about the talk. What to say and how to say it:
Remember that they’re not adults, but tell the truth: A senior in high school can deal with levels of complexity that would only discourage and confuse a kindergartener. Adjust the level of the conversation to your child’s development level. Having said that, avoid the temptation to say things that are not actually true just to make them feel better. Be honest, but keep it simple and clear. Don’t overexplain, and let them ask questions so you get a better sense of what they understand and what they need more detail on.
Be prepared for questions: The older your kid is, the more complex their questions may be. While preschoolers might not know what to ask or will simply ask “why,” high school students will likely want to understand deeper meanings. It is okay for you not to know all the answers, but it is important that you do some research before starting the conversation. If you want to prepare, check out Antidote’s Wellness blog. It has tons of articles detailing and exploring conditions in an approachable way.
Be communicative: Even though on paper this is a pretty one-sided conversation, your child will be more involved than you might think. See if your kid is upset or confused by what you say, and adapt accordingly. You might have to rethink, rephrase, or repeat some points. You want to be as clear as possible in this conversation, so as not to leave room for doubt.
Be positive and supportive: You are your child’s role model. Your kid is likely to mirror your behavior about mental illness, like they do in any other context. Show them that mental health disorders should be treated like any other condition, with care and compassion, not with shame and dismay. This will not only help your child avoid fear of mental health disorders, but by being supportive and showing compassion, you demonstrate the greatest way to battle the stigma that comes with mental illness.
The follow through
Although this article discusses a single, initial conversation, it is part of a larger journey that you and your child will have to go through in learning how to deal with changes, abnormalities and illnesses in the world. Observe your kid and see if you notice any changes in their behavior following the conversation, good or bad. You might feel like you have to repeat the conversation, and that is completely natural – it’s a learning process. If you see signs that your child may be struggling, you might want to consult with a health professional.
As always, it’s important to remember that in order to be there for your child, you have to be there for yourself. In order to show positivity, you have to be positive. If you feel like you don’t have the capacity to be there for your child, or if this conversation is held in the midst of a traumatic event in your life and you feel fatigued and powerless, don’t hesitate to reach out to Antidote’s board-certified doctors working in our mental health service for assessment.