For parents struggling with mental health, talking to your children about the symptoms, the struggles, and certain behaviors may be difficult. It can certainly be a frightening experience for the parent, but for children who may not fully understand or comprehend what is happening — it may be confusing as well.
That’s why it’s so important to talk to your children about mental health and mental illness in the family. Whether it’s a parent, grandparent, sibling, or guardian going through it — openness and communication about why certain behaviors or situations occur are necessary for moving forward.
Take the time to sit down and talk or address questions and concerns a child may have. Mental health issues can be frightening — but they’re far more terrifying when left unaddressed — especially for kids.
We recommend explaining how a certain mental illness or symptom works, because it may give children peace of mind and the right tools to live a happier and more confident life. We’ve put together some tips and advice that we believe is a great starting point for open and effective communication regarding your mental health with your children.
Your child may begin to identify that mom or dad isn’t like other moms and dads. When they’re old enough, it’s time to have a talk. They may not understand right away, and that’s OK. It takes time. You can take each day as a new opportunity to help them gain perspective and learn. Having open and casual conversations about mental health is important, and your child should feel free to ask questions or voice concerns throughout these discussions.
This communication works well when it’s scheduled. Children, especially the younger ones, respond positively to a structured environment. So, maybe a family meeting to discuss what’s been going on is the best course of action. Or, if there’s a time during the day or night when you’re asking about a child’s day, this could be a great time to let them know about your day as well.
You can use this time to address how your mental health (or your partners) has affected the day. Perhaps one of you has struggled with loud noises or simply need some alone time to recharge. Children may not understand this, and the reactions of a parent may not convey what is really going on.
For example, if a parent needs to recharge and wants some alone time, a child may feel as if their actions prompted this — which is absolutely not true. However, if a parent explains to their child that “daddy’s batteries are low and he needs to recharge,” it takes the blame away from the child.
Children are curious little detectives, and they will ask questions. Parents may not have all of the answers, but it’s important that they make an effort to answer or explain to the best of their ability.
Parents should try to field as many questions as they’re able to. If unsure about how to respond or answer — there are a ton of helpful tools and resources available. There is even a children’s book that can help address specific mental health issues such as bipolar disorder. It’s called Binky Bunny Wants To Know About Bipolar — and can be a great tool. There are other books to help with mental health awareness from the Binky Bunny and the Psychiatric Briar Patch collection.
Sometimes, the best way to address questions or concerns is to seek mental health counseling options that involve the parent and the child. An experienced counselor or therapist may be able to facilitate the conversation more effectively while offering sound advice and tips for fielding questions.
Tips for Helping Children Understand Mental Health
It’s easier said than done, and every family dynamic and mental health situation is unique, but helping a child understand the struggles and roadblocks can create a much better environment.
If you haven’t noticed, communication is the backbone of effectively speaking with your child about mental illness. Here are some tips for how to guide their understanding of your particular mental health concerns.
Tell Them How You Feel
Explaining how your particular mental health challenges make you feel, along with how you feel about the illness or symptoms, can be a great way to open up some new lines of communication.
Explain That It’s Nobody’s Fault
Mental health concerns are difficult enough for adults to understand, but for children, it can be even more challenging. Explain that mental illness isn’t anyone’s fault — and that it’s something humans live with and fight through.
Explore How They Feel or Talk About Behaviors
Your child may be frustrated or even self-blaming when it comes to how a parent or guardian behaves. Understanding how they talk about or feel about the situation can give insight into how they perceive the mental health dynamic.
Speak In Their Language
It can be difficult to have conversations with a child about mental health because the language itself is complex. However, you can get creative in the various ways you explain behaviors, reactions, or mental illness itself. Whether it be telling a story, using an analogy, or even the child’s own experiences as a way to have a productive conversation about mental health.
Be Open About Medication
There’s no shame in taking medication for mental health issues, and there’s certainly no shame in informing your children about these medications. Now, we’re not saying you need to go into the monotony of psychotropics — but it’s OK to explain to them why you’re taking medicine. Children understand shots and medicine — mental health medication is no different. You can even explain side effects in case you’re concerned that they may affect behaviors.
Don’t Underestimate Potential Trauma
If a child has witnessed self-harming, violence, or suicidal behavior — do not underestimate how that may affect them. These events can be terrifying and also have a lasting impact on the young and underdeveloped brains of children. If this occurs, we recommend having a child see a therapist. If that’s not feasible due to where a family lives, there are online mental health counseling and psychiatry options available that take advantage of the incredible advances in technology to provide care.
Never Stop The Conversation
It may be easier to just “get the conversation out of the way.” However, those struggling with mental health know that it doesn’t just go away. It’s a lifelong fight, one that certainly affects the ones we love. Always keep the lines of communication and conversation open with children about mental health. The more they understand mental illness, a parent’s particular struggle, and the various ways to symptom manage and overcome psychological adversity — the better the relationships will be.
Additionally, children will learn how to cope with their own potential mental health concerns as well. Luckily, mental illness is slowly losing its stigma, which means that conversations are becoming easier, and resources are abundant. Take advantage of all the tools at your disposal to talk to your children about mental health.