Kids are very intelligent and naturally curious. If you or someone in your family struggles with a mental illness, there is a good chance that your child has some understanding of what that means. It is important to have conversations about mental health with children early, as confusion, misunderstanding, and misinterpretation can cause them a significant amount of distress.

For example, if a parent struggles with depression and has trouble getting out of bed, taking them to school, making it to their school events, or celebrating important events like birthdays. Sometimes kids will assume that they are unloved or unwanted. This is a narrative that is important to correct early. Children, especially young children often view things like a parent’s depression as their fault when in reality they don’t have any control over a parent’s depression or other mental illness.

How you talk to your child about mental health depends on their age. For younger children using age-appropriate words, short sentences, and fewer details can be helpful. Younger children are more visual, which means they focus more on what they can see.

Mental illness at times can be a difficult topic to discuss due to the often subjective nature of symptoms. Sometimes comparing the experience to a physical illness like asthma can be helpful. For example, people with asthma can live a healthy life with treatment that helps with symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms can get worse if there is environmental or physical stress, but rarely do people with asthma get so sick that they have to go to the hospital.

Older children are more inquisitive, so doing a little bit of homework before embarking on the path of conversation is helpful. Kids often ask questions like: what is a mental illness? What causes it? Who can have or get a mental illness? How it is treated? They are more likely to ask about specifics like “why does Daddy get so mad when he drinks?” or “why does Grandma talk to herself when there’s no one around her?” Kids are very perceptive, so it is important to answer their questions directly and honestly so their feelings are validated which in turn reassures them about their concerns and feelings.

Adolescents are generally capable of handling more information, and also asking more specific and difficult questions. Teenagers generally speak more openly with their peers as opposed to their parents, usually because there is more of a give and take when it comes to conversation. Adolescents tend not to tolerate conversations that are one-sided, they are much more engaged when there is an open discussion as opposed to a lecture. 

This is a conversation that should occur when there is enough time to sit down and talk undistracted. Times of crisis are not the best moments to have these important discussions. It will also be important to gauge your child’s response during the conversation. If they become upset or disengage this could be due to confusion or feeling overwhelmed. It’s ok to slow down, back up, or have the conversation over a period of time. It’s important to allow for questions as well. It is also okay not to have all the answers. Sometimes kids will ask questions about things that we don’t know how to respond to. Admitting that shows that we are human and still have a lot to learn as well.  

It is natural as a parent to want to avoid having difficult conversations. However, talking about mental health is important because it creates an opportunity for parents to connect with their kids, provide information, support, and guidance and to promote understanding and compassion for those who may be struggling.

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