This is a guest post by Dr. Dawn Brown Psych MD.
Even as an adult, conversations about mental illness are tough. For kids, mental illness can be completely bewildering, especially if they’re watching someone they love walk through it or experiencing it themselves.
As a parent, your instinct may be to protect your child from the reality of what’s happening, to simply brush it off. But don’t. Having age-appropriate but honest conversations about mental illness will help your child feel more, not less, secure about the situation, it reduces stigma, and develops your child’s empathy.
Here are five “Dos” and “Dont’s” for starting healthy, productive conversations that give kids the information they need without overwhelming them.
1. Do Use Children’s Books to Start the Conversation
Kids are already used to learning about everything from doctor visits to making new friends through their bedtime stories, so books about mental health will feel like a natural way to bring up the issue.
Some great options for teaching kids about depression are Michael Rosen’s Sad Book and Lloyd Jones’s The Princess and the Fog. Up and Down the Worry Hill is one of my favorites for kids who experience anxiety.
Seeing characters experience can help normalize their own situation, giving them a chance to open up, ask questions, and express feeling they may have been never brought up otherwise.
2. Don’t Dismiss the Issue
Resist the temptation to oversimplify mental health issues. When we say things like “Oh, she’s just a little sad” or “He’s just throwing a tantrum” we may think that we’re protecting our kids, but in reality, we’re teaching them some dangerous ideas.
When they’re old enough to know what was really happening, they’ll have the perception that it’s not okay to talk about mental health or that mental health issues aren’t true illnesses. And if they ever experience these issues themselves, they could have a harder time opening up to get the help they need.
At the same time, only you can judge what’s age-appropriate for your child. If a family member is struggling with suicidal thoughts, for example, young children may not be ready to hear about that concept. You can still do your best to explain the existence of a particular mental illness without giving your child all the details.
3. Do Take Advantage of Your Child’s Questions
“Is she going to be okay?” “How do we help?” “Why can’t he just stop getting angry?” Sometimes, there are no easy answers to the questions our children ask. Kids often ask questions when they’re frightened or upset by someone’s behavior.
Tough as they may be, kids’ questions are one of the best ways to start talking about mental health. They signal that your child is already sensitive to others’ wellbeing, which is something you want to encourage, not shut down.
4. Don’t Use Metaphor without Being Careful
One of the easiest ways to help kids grasp the concept of mental illness is using comparisons to physical ailments like colds or injuries. In some ways, these comparisons are great. They help kids understand that what they or someone else is experiencing isn’t their fault. They also remove the stigma around seeking help from doctors and pharmaceuticals.
However, these metaphors can cause your child to fear “catching” something like depression or bipolar disorder. Be careful to explain that mental health issues are not contagious and that we don’t need to avoid people who have them.
5. Do Ask Follow-up Questions
Oftentimes, our kids don’t know how to articulate their feelings unless we help them. If you sense that your child is still confused, upset, or frightened by a recent experience, it’s important to make sure that they’re processing their feelings healthily.
Targeted questions validate your child’s feelings. “Are you okay?” isn’t the same as “Are you still angry about what happened?” or “Did that scare you?”
For example, if a family member with bipolar disorder suddenly lashes out or loses interest in playing with your child, your little one may feel deeply betrayed and confused without knowing how to say so. As much as we want to teach our children to be empathetic, we also want to teach them that it’s okay to be hurt or upset by someone’s symptoms. When kids don’t get the chance to feel what they feel, they’re more likely to start harboring resentment, frustration, or fear towards those with mental health issues.
Remember that your child will likely approach mental health in the same way you do. If you’re afraid to discuss depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, they probably will be too. By modeling open and honest conversations about mental health, we prepare our kids to be compassionate, understanding, and ready to seek help should they ever need it.
How do you talk to your kids about mental illness? Any helpful analogies, resources, or experiences you want to share?
This is a guest post by Dr. Dawn Brown Psych MD, a top Houston ADHD doctor and founder of ADHD Wellness Center. Committed to building awareness and employing programs to preserve the safety of our future, Dr. Dawn aims to draw attention to the actions we can take right now against the mental health issues of tomorrow. Follow her on Instagram @drdawnpsychmd.