Many parents struggle with how to approach a conversation with their kids about mental health. It is not uncommon, as many of us as adults also struggle with how to talk about our mental health.
The summer presents a perfect opportunity, when the rush of work, school and extra-curricular activities have slowed down, to spend quality time and check in with your kids.
Tips for having these conversations:
- For little kids, making a connection to something familiar, for example, Winnie the Pooh, may help kids to develop an understanding. The character of Eeyore may be a great way for kids to relate to some of the symptoms of mental illness.
- Create a connection in the conversation to physical health. Kids understand the concept of not feeling well physically. Speaking about how mental illness affects the brain can help kids to make a physical connection they can better understand.
- Be sure to avoid pressuring them into a conversation. Letting them know that you are there for them and there to talk if they want to may help them to feel comfortable opening up when they are ready.
- Be sure to communicate to them that this is not their fault.
- Normalize the conversation. Using tough words like “depression” and “suicide”, (as age appropriate), shows comfort in talking about the subject. It creates a safe space for your child to
Open up about their mental health.
- Be sure to make your child feel heard by validating their feelings, listening and paying careful attention to non-verbal cues like body language.
- Don’t hesitate to share your own personal experience (if applicable). This normalizes the conversation and communicates to your child that they are not alone.
- Things that are helpful to say: “Do you want to talk about it?”, “How can I help?”, “I’m here if you need me”, “I’m sorry that you are going through this”, “Are you looking for advice or would you rather I just listen?”
Common misconceptions/mistakes to avoid:
- Don’t make assumptions because they “seem to be ok” or aren’t showing any signs or symptoms of struggling with their mental health. Kids, just like adults, can be very good at masking.
- Don’t overreact if your child opens up about feelings of suicide or self-injurious behaviour. Reassure them that you are glad that they felt safe sharing this with you and that you will find them help and be there for them along the way.
- Don’t take it personally. Sometimes depression can come out as anger or other emotions. Try to understand where emotional outbursts may be coming from.
- Be careful not to tell them more about mental illness than they are ready to hear.
- Things NOT to say: “it’s all in your head”, “snap out of it”, “things could be worse”, “get over it”, etc. This invalidates how they are feeling!
- Access support services made for kids and teens that allow them to communicate by text, email, phone or in person, depending on their comfort level.
- Safety Planning is a key component of mental health conversations. Also, the best part about it is that you don’t need to be a health care professional to do it. Anyone can!