By Diamond Grant
Mental health is a sensitive topic, just one of the many sensitive topics that we must discuss with our kids, and while it can be difficult to decide when to talk to our children about mental health, for some of us it will come much earlier than we ever could have anticipated. That said, when dealing with this, the most important thing to remember is to approach your children with an understanding of their developmental level, sensitivity to their worries and honest answers to their innocent questions. This applies to children of all ages, from young children to teenagers.
Because we live in an age of constant information and never-ending news cycles, children today often hear about complicated issues far earlier than those of us from earlier generations. This certainly applies to mental health.
In recent years, it’s become apparent that the stigma of mental illness has kept many people from seeking help. Thankfully, many professionals, as well as those who suffer from mental illness, are speaking up. They are sharing their stories in an attempt to erase the serious effect secrecy has had on the well-being of thousands of people.
As parents, we have the opportunity to raise our children with as little of that stigma as possible. Beginning when they are young means that we don’t have to wait until they actually encounter mental health issues in a friend or family member; instead, we can introduce the topic in a less scary environment where less is at stake.
As conversation around mental health becomes normalized, it’s likely that your children will hear words and phrases they do not understand. You can wait for them to come to you with their questions, but this approach runs the risk that they will get their information from a less-than-desirable source. If you want to be the one that shares this information with them, you need a plan.
Young Children: Keep It Simple
Every child plays doctor. When my son was about three years old, he often crawled up next to me on the couch with a pad of paper and began to ask me the questions he’d heard his pediatrician ask dozens of times.
“What brings you in today?”
“How are you feeling?”
“Does this hurt?”
Then the exam began and he listened to my heart and my deep breaths. He looked down my throat and in my ears. More often than not, he told me I’d be just fine, but that I needed to take my medicine and go to sleep. That said, this is the perfect opportunity to introduce the idea of mental illness to young children. Instead of telling your child that your throat hurts, tell them you feel sad. Allow them to treat your sadness just as they would your sore throat and then thank them for their help in making you feel better.
If they have questions, answer them honestly but simply. Tell them that sometimes when people are sick, they feel very sad even though they have a happy life. Tell them those people can see a good doctor who can help them feel better. This sort of conversation sets a solid foundation for future, more in-depth conversations.
Tweens: Facts Are Your Friend
When kids hit this stage, they are curious. The world has opened wider to them and they are beginning to understand that situations and people are a little more complicated than they used to think.
The best thing you can do at this stage is to play it cool and answer their questions. Even if the questions they ask shock you or embarrass you, it’s important to let them know that talking to you is safe. This is the age when they may ask things such as how a certain celebrity died or what “bipolar” means. They may feel awkward about some of these questions, but you can and should assure them that their questions are totally normal.
During this stage, your goal is to build trust. If you are honest and treat them with respect, you drastically increase the chance that they will come to you again. Next time it might be more serious or personal, so you’ll be so glad they know they can always come to you.
Teens: Keep An Ear To The Ground
We all know that the teen years are difficult because of the immense transition from childhood to adulthood. Hormones make it especially fraught. Relationships become far more complicated, and mental health often becomes a very relevant topic of conversation.
Even if you’ve built a strong foundation of trust with your child, you can assume that there will be issues and events that they won’t share with you. Privacy becomes paramount during this stage, and unfortunately, secrecy often goes along with it.
You’ve probably heard that one of the main reasons teenagers aren’t known for excellent decision-making skills is that they’re brain isn’t done growing. But because so much of their personhood feels grown-up, teens sometimes make ill-advised or even downright dangerous choices. The first thing you’ll want to do is assure that your teen is safe.
The internet has changed the world for these teens and cyber bullying is a very real danger. This phenomenon has triggered many mental health crises. One thing you can do is to create a secure internet connection which includes their tablets and phones. By doing this, you are helping them to keep their private information private. They will be far less likely to be a victim if their online movements are always protected.
From there, the best thing you can do is keep your ear to the ground. Pay attention to their life and the issues that seem to come up. Know their friends, and if possible, have them in your home often. Continue to involve yourself in the perimeter of their world. You want to be close enough so that they know you care but far enough so that they don’t feel smothered.
These steps will help you to know when a conversation may be warranted. Your child may seem cool and collected, but once you get them talking, you may discover they are scared or concerned.
Talking with your children is one of the best things you can do for their overall wellness. When it comes to discussing mental health issues, this is particularly important and helpful. Only you can know when the time is right, and hopefully, when you decide to approach your child, you’ll begin a lifelong practice of openness, honesty and safety.
This post originally appeared on Sunshine Spoils Milk.