If you’re a parent and you or another family member has mental health issues, you probably don’t know how to talk about this issue with your children. Should you discuss it at all? If yes, what to say?
Your first reaction may be to avoid talking to your children about mental illness, because you might be afraid it will scare or upset them. However, talking openly about these problems can reassure your children and help them learn to cope better, as they will have a better understanding of what the person with the mental health problem is going through. Additionally, increased awareness can lead to greater compassion and can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
When you decide to open the door to a conversation with your children about mental health issues, here are some important points that can help you deal with this situation more easily and with more confidence.
1. Cover the basics.
It is often helpful to start with some simple facts about mental illnesses and dispel some common myths surrounding them. For instance:
- Mental illnesses are “real” illnesses, just like diabetes or epilepsy.
- Mental illnesses are very common; one in four adults will have one.
- It’s normal to talk about having a mental illness; it shouldn’t be a secret.
- There are very effective treatments for mental illness.
- People with mental illnesses can and do get better.
Children may worry a great deal about family members with mental illness and may blame themselves for the person’s difficulties. Reassure yourself and reduce their fears by telling them:
- It is not your fault if a member of your family suffers from a mental illness.
- You cannot “catch” a mental illness from someone else.
- You won’t necessarily have the same disease as your family member when you grow up.
- It’s not up to you to make the person with mental illness feel better.
3. Keep in mind the child’s age and maturity level.
How you talk about mental health issues will vary greatly for children of different ages and developmental levels. For example, a very mature 10-year-old can understand a parent’s mental illness better than an immature 13-year-old.
Here are some considerations for talking about mental illness with different age groups:
- Preschoolers: Very young children only want clear and simple information. They may ask about someone behaving oddly or wonder why a family member is sad or angry.
- Pre-teens: Older children may want more specific information and may ask more detailed questions about a family member’s mental health issues or behavior. It is important to be honest and direct and to give them factual information and reassurance.
- Teens: Teenagers can usually handle much more detailed information about mental illness and will ask very specific and often pointed questions. They may look to peers more than family for answers, so they can often be misinformed. Be sure to be specific and responsive when they have questions.
4. Make sure your children feel safe.
No matter what age your children are, make sure they feel safe and comfortable discussing mental health issues. Observe their reactions, let them ask questions, and slow down or repeat information if they seem confused. If they’re bothered by the conversation, you can always stop and come back later after they’ve had time to process some information.
5. If things get tough.
If you don’t know how to talk about mental health issues with your children or with yourself, if you start to worry that they will become too distressed by these issues within the family, seek help from a mental health professional. Mental Health. Child or family therapy can be very helpful in these circumstances. It’s also a good idea to teach your children how to call for help in a crisis or emergency, just in case such a situation arises.
While these tips can be helpful, there is no set formula for discussing mental health issues with your children. Also, remember that there is never a “perfect” time to strike up a conversation. But if you’re supportive, loving, and honest when you broach the subject with them, you’ll get off to a good start.
Copyright David Susman 2022
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