How to talk to your kids about mental health

Family & Relationships

by Meera Beharry, MD

Jul 31, 2019

Current data indicates that mental health conditions affect at least one in every five children and adolescents, and possibly more than half of people under age 21. If you’re a parent, that might cause you to worry — How do you know if your child has a mental health problem? How can you help them cope with their own mental illness or the mental illness of someone else in the family? How can you help support them if they are diagnosed?

First and foremost, we must ask ourselves, “What do I think about mental illness?” and, “How, if at all, have I shared my views with my children and my family?”

There’s no denying the stigma surrounding the mental health discussion. But if adults stigmatize mental illness, then children will, too. To help address common stigma and misrepresentations, many celebrities are speaking out about their own experiences with mental health.

As a parent, there are some things you can do to help your child develop a healthy understanding of mental illness.

Related: How to set healthy screen time limits

Teach the right vocabulary.

“That’s crazy.” “She’s bipolar.” “I’m so OCD.” 

These are typical phrases that many people say and children often hear, but these comments can lead to misunderstanding and negative perceptions of mental health.

Once you are clear about your own understanding of mental illness, help your children be careful about how they use words.

Once you are clear about your own understanding of mental illness, help your children be careful about how they use words. Avoid inaccurate use of diagnostic terms. For example, say, “I like to keep things in order,” rather than, “I’m OCD.” (However, if you do have a mental illness, don’t shy away from using the proper terms.)

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

When issues related to mental illness come up, ask in a non-judgmental way what your child knows about depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other common mental health problems. Don’t avoid the subject for fear of an uncomfortable conversation. Your children need to know that it’s okay to talk about mental health — and that they can trust you.

Help your children learn about mental health.

If they don’t know much about mental health, you can take the opportunity to help them learn how to find reputable information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some good resources for learning about different conditions and taking care of your mental health throughout life.

If you or another adult in your child’s life struggles with mental illness, it’s important to help them understand that the illness is not their fault and teach them what they can do to help.

If you or another adult in your child’s life struggles with mental illness, it’s important to help them understand that the illness is not their fault and teach them what they can do to help

Related: How to help your child establish healthy habits

Make the most of your conversation time.

For younger kids, teach them to say what they are feeling. Let them know it’s healthy to talk about their emotions with you. You should also encourage them to think about what others might be feeling.

Here are some practical tips: Make time to talk about feelings during quiet moments, or when the issue comes up TV or the radio. You can also use the “captive time” in the car to have brief discussions with your children or teens. Since they don’t have to make direct eye contact with you, it can be a little easier for them to talk without the fear of judgement.

Support them through mental health difficulties.

If your child does experience mental health problems, it’s important to support them while allowing them to maintain their privacy and learn how to help themselves. One of the phrases I recommend using when someone expresses sadness or anger is:

“I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. Thank you for letting me know. What can I do to help?”

Sometimes, the answer will be, “nothing.” In that case, I recommend respecting the child’s wishes, while maintaining their safety. You can do this by saying “OK. I’ll let you have some time alone, but I’ll come back to check on you in a few minutes.” Or, if you feel like the child or teen cannot be left alone, you can say something like, “OK. I’ll be right here in case anything changes.” 

Recognize the seriousness of mental illness.

If a young person says they intend to harm themselves or others, we must all take that seriously and bring them into emergency care or call 911 for further evaluation. Sometimes, adults may think that the child or teen “just wants attention.” However, I still recommend emergency evaluation. We don’t want to risk misjudging a situation and missing a chance to help someone in crisis. Also, if the young person doesn’t actually feel this way, they need to learn the severity of making these statements and develop different ways of expressing their emotions.

Find the right resources and support.

For children and teens with mental illness, there are support groups and online refuges where young people and the adults in their lives can share messages about their experiences with mental illness. When it comes to mental health, finding support is key to healing.

There are also other online resources like this stress management plan that I recommend to help promote mental health and teach all teens how to deal with stress. Talk to your child’s doctor if you are concerned or would like resources for tackling mental health problems.

By treating mental illness like any other health problem, we can fight the stigma and improve access to treatment — so no one struggles alone.

More questions? Find a doctor who can help, or explore our virtual care options today.

About the Author

Meera Beharry is an adolescent medicine pediatrician on the medical staff at McLane Children's Scott & White Clinic – Temple and McLane Children's Scott & White Specialty Clinic – Hillcrest. She enjoys traveling, baking, reading, dancing and her new hobby of sailing! She had a mild case of “busy kid syndrome” as a teenager and would have suffered greatly if her parents did not put limits on her activities.

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