Whether or not your child is personally struggling, the increase in mental health concerns in children and teenagers in recent years is frightening, with some calling mental health the next global pandemic. As parents, we fear that our child will be struggling with their mental health and not come to us, but we also worry about saying the right thing when they do come to us.
So how do we address mental health with our kids?
Don’t wait until mental health is a crisis or hits to home. I always tell parents that much of the work in therapy happens outside the therapy session when children are at home, in school, etc. Similarly, much of the conversation about mental health with kids and teens needs to happen day to day, not just when something has happened or they come to you in crisis.
Remember that your kids are always listening, whether you are talking to them directly or not. Be mindful about how you talk about mental health in general so that they know you are a safe person to come to if they have questions or are struggling with something.
Acknowledging that kids and teens (and people in general!) are struggling does not increase the likelihood your child will struggle. Instead, it normalizes that other people are going through difficult times too so that your child might feel less alone in their struggles.
Be mindful of the tone and phrasing you use when discussing mental health. Mental health stigma is common, and whether or not we intentionally mean to stigmatize struggling with mental health or reaching out for support, our child hears our words and makes their own interpretation. Common phrases such as “they’re crazy” or “that person needs help” may seem harmless, but send the message that there is something wrong with struggling or with needing more support.
Mental health is like our physical health - everyone goes through periods where they get sick with the flu, just like everyone experiences ups and downs emotionally.
Every conversation you have with or around your child sets the foundation for how they will feel about mental health and whether you are a safe person to talk to. Mental health is like our physical health - everyone goes through periods where they get sick with the flu, just like everyone experiences ups and downs emotionally. Arming your child with the knowledge that these struggles are normal and that help is available will set them up for success when they are going through something hard.
Whether you know the exact right words to say when they do come to you or how to help them, know that them coming to you is a success itself because they have learned that you are a safe person to talk to. And when they do come to you, regardless of the circumstances, start with, “I’m so glad you came to me about this. We’re going to figure this out together.”
About the Author
Merideth Wirstiuk, Psy.D., joined Valley Children’s as a pediatric psychologist in 2017. She has worked with children and young adults diagnosed with behavioral issues, anxiety, depression, parent-child relational issues, grief and loss, chronic medical conditions and chronic pain, among others diagnoses.