Set the scene
Discussions with children and teens are often best when done in a place where they feel safe and comfortable. Try to minimize outside distractions, such as phones or other technology. Having this be more like a conversation rather than a lecture will make it more likely that your child with share with you their thoughts and feelings.
Choose your words wisely
Many of us have been taught that the mind and body are separate from one another, but that could not be further from the truth. It is well documented that individuals with chronic health conditions are at higher risk for mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, and poor mental health is a risk factor for experiencing chronic medical conditions. Therefore, it’s often helpful to remind children – and ourselves – that physical and mental health are not separate from one another, and each affects the other.
When talking with your child about mental health, communicate honestly and at a level that is appropriate for your child’s age and development. Being mindful of the tone you use when discussing mental health is important, and being matter-of-fact and neutral when discussing mental health can help reduce the stigma or feelings of fear related to sharing.
Healthy parents, healthy kids
Model positive sharing about emotions and challenges that you face. Children learn from those around them. If you are comfortable and open about sharing how you feel, they will become more comfortable with sharing, too.
It’s important that parents take care of their own mental health, too. Life as a parent today can be difficult; stressors sometimes seem to come from all directions. By acknowledging your own mental health and practicing healthy coping methods (talking with trusted friends and family, taking care of your physical health, taking time for activities you enjoy, etc.), you will not only be able to support your child through their mental health challenges, but will be a model to them of how to be resilient in hard times.
Even if your child’s sources of stress may seem insignificant as an adult, they are just as real. In preschool, separation from parents can cause anxiety. As kids enter school age, academics and social pressures can cause stress. Children may be unable to relax if they are overscheduled for activities. Even disturbing images and talk of the world around them can create stress.
When talking with your child about their mental health, make sure to validate and normalize how they are feeling. When children feel dismissed or that their problems are written off as “not a big deal,” they are often less likely to confide in others. Also, try to resist the urge to “fix the problem” for your child. Giving advice too quickly often shuts down the conversation, especially when children just want to be heard.
Continue the conversation
Remember that discussing mental health is not a one-time conversation. Be sure that you are checking in with your child regularly, even when it seems like “nothing is wrong.” Try to ask open-ended questions. This helps open up a conversation and makes sharing more natural. Give your child the opportunity to ask questions, and pay attention to their reactions to what you share or the questions you ask. The more mental health is part of regular conversation, the more likely your child will feel comfortable sharing about their emotions and experiences with you.
Remember: you don’t need to know all the answers or be an expert to talk to your child about mental health. Be sure to look for the signs and symptoms that your child may need more support.