How To Talk To Your Kids About Mental Health

1 in 5 children lives with a serious, diagnosable mental illness. 1 in 5. Think about your child’s friends, their class, their school. That’s a lot of kids. It’s never been more important to be able to speak openly and honestly about mental health with your children. Fortunately, today’s parents are more open to discussing these important issues that previous generations.

So, you’re open to discussing mental health with your child, but how do you do it? Where do you start? As with most essential topics, start at the beginning. Talk with your children about their feelings, focus on their strengths, and most importantly listen to what they have to say.

Here are some tips from our parenting experts to get the conversation started with your child in elementary school. We also shared how to talk to your preschooler and elementary school-age kids.

Junior High and High School  

Teenagers. Am I right? You thought they could throw a tantrum when they were toddlers? That’s nothing to the depth of emotions you’ll see as they (hopefully) mature into young adults. Pre-teens, tweens, and teenagers are different from your younger kids as they are dealing with far greater and far more pressure than ever before. Mix in challenging physical changes and ever more complex relationships, and you’ll quickly find that discussing mental health with your teenagers is critically important. With teen suicide at an all-time high, there has never been a better reason to talk, and listen to, your kids.

 What to say to your kids as they sprint toward adulthood.

  • Find creative ways other than talking to express their feelings.
    • The bottom line is sometimes your teen is just not going to want to talk about how they are feeling. That can be OK on occasion as long as they have some way to express themselves. Encourage journaling, painting, music, drawing, dancing, anything artistic builds on their strength of creativity and can help them manage their emotions even when they don’t feel like talking.
  • Ask questions when they are feeling fine.
    • Mental health is just like physical health. Sometimes you feel good, and other times, not so much. Having conversations around their positive emotions and what makes them feel good, reinforces those good feelings, and helps prepare them to cope with the bad.
  • Ask them questions that help you gauge their sadder emotions.
    • Understanding if your child feels like they do not have a way to express their feelings, or don’t have someone to talk to is critical. Hopefully, when they were younger, you established key adults in their lives that they can go to. Ask them, “Do you ever feel completely alone?” or “Do you ever feel like no one understands you?” If the answer is yes, reinforce that you are there for them and reiterate everyone else in their lives that care for them as well. A mental health assessment may help you understand if a more therapeutic approach is necessary here.
  • Talk to them about the stressors and pressures in their lives.
    • Kids are busier now than ever. And the pressure they feel, whether it’s from you, a teacher or coach, or even themselves, is greater than ever. Stay involved. Talk to your children daily over dinner and understand what is going on in their lives. If homework, an after-school job, or college pressures are getting to be too much, intervene with coping methods to help them get back on track. A little mindfulness, some breathing exercises, yoga, or even just a walk outdoors can help ease their stress
  • Monitor their media consumption.
    • Look, you know your kid is staring at their phone all day every day. But do you know what they are staring at. This generation is growing up in a culture and with a comfort around technology that you probably don’t have. It can be hard to keep up. The reality is it’s far too easy for them to slip in a digital rabbit hole of inappropriate content, messaging that doesn’t align with your family’s values, and cyberbullying. Be aware of what they are doing online and be proactive.
  • Ask if they know people who struggle with anxiety or depression and how they manage it?
    • Be prepared for the answer to this question to be yes. Your child likely knows someone that is dealing with something. They may learn coping skills from their friends, but this is an opportunity to gain insight into how they are feeling about anxiety or depression. Listen to them and seek help if necessary.
  • How long is it okay to be sad…. 1 minute, 1 hour, 1 day, 100 days?
    • Trying to gauge your child understanding of sadness can open up a real conversation about mental health. Feelings should come and go. Again, like physical feelings, emotional feelings can be good and bad and can and should change with experiences and because of your environment. It’s when those not so great feeling emotions hang around for a little too long that you may need to be concerned.

Talking with your children early, often, and continuously about their mental well-being is so essential. Share these tips with fellow parents and let us know which strategies worked best for your family.