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How to Talk to Your Child about Mental Health

July 19th, 2023


As children grow older, talking about certain topics can be difficult. However, mental health shouldn’t be one of them. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), 75% of children who struggle with mental health do not talk to any child mental health service. Mental health is a continuum, and regardless of the presence of a mental disorder or not, children should have access to mental health services to ensure a good quality of life. However, not everyone has access to these types of services for a plethora of reasons. Therefore, talking with your child about their mental health is necessary and will lead to a better chance of them establishing greater overall health.

What is Children's Mental Health?

What is Children's Mental Health?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines being mentally healthy in childhood as, “...reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social skills and how to cope where there are problems.” Children can function well in the world around them when they reach these milestones. When children don’t reach these milestones, they tend to struggle with learning and behaving appropriately at home, school, and even with friends when playing. If you observe serious changes in your child regarding their behaviors and emotions, it is a good idea to talk with them about the importance of mental health and comfort them by explaining how you can be a source of support and help.

Common Signs and Symptoms

Before moving on to how one goes about a conversation pertaining to mental health with their child, the Mayo Clinic cites that it is important to be on the lookout for the following warning signs and symptoms of mental illness in your child:

  • Sadness over a few-week period
  • Withdrawing or avoiding friends
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Irritability
  • Talking about self-harming behaviors
  • Change in mood and/or behavior
  • Change in personality
  • Change in school attendance and/or academic performance
  • Change in eating habits
  • Weight loss
  • Change in sleep habits
  • An increase in pain, especially concerning headaches and stomachaches
  • Difficulty with focus and concentration

Again, if you notice any of these changes in your child, a conversation with them might be necessary, and seeking out a mental health provider for help could be beneficial.

How to Talk to Children About Mental Health

Due to the stigma behind mental health, past and present, it can be an uncomfortable topic for many people to discuss; however, educating yourself on the topic can help with any insecurities regarding talking to children about troubles they may be having. Plus, the more you talk about mental health, the more comfortable you will become having these conversations – so check in on yourself and your kid(s) frequently to reduce the stigma!

Daily check-ins can be beneficial in order for you to have a baseline to go from when evaluating your child for any mental health concerns. Be sure to pay special attention to your child's abnormal, heightened reactions. Moreover, encourage them to ask you questions. If you don’t know the answer, research together, then talk to a mental health professional.

So, what does “talking” to children about mental health look like?

How to Talk to Children About Mental Health

9 Ways to Approach Conversations about Mental Health with Your Children

It is common for children to feel ashamed about their worries and/or “bad” behaviors, so try your best to create an environment that feels safe and comfortable to avoid the lack of understanding. You can do this by assuring them that mental illness is not their fault and it does not mean something is wrong with them. Additionally, even though your child might be struggling, be sure to point out their strengths and unique characteristics that make them, them!

Here are nine steps to take when trying to implement mental health check-ins into your and your child's daily life:

  1. Be able to acknowledge and cope with your own mental health issues.
  2. Educate yourself on children's mental health conditions and the resources available to you in your community.
  3. Check in with teachers, or other adults in your child's life, about how your child is doing when they are with them.
  4. Create a routine around discussing emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
  5. Listen to and validate your child's experiences.
  6. Encourage them to talk through their emotions even if they label them as “bad”.
  7. Discuss ways your child can practice self-care to prevent these uncomfortable feelings.
  8. Do not be afraid to ask about suicide and other self-harmful behaviors/thoughts.
  9. If you feel your child needs extra help, contact a child mental health professional.

9 Ways to Approach Conversations about Mental Health with Your Children

Example Questions for Parents

The Mayo Clinic cites that common disorders among children are anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, eating disorders, depression and other mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia. Therefore, the below questions are a good place to start if you are having trouble creating an open dialogue with your child.

  • Can you tell me more about what is worrying you?
  • How is your body feeling? Does your tummy feel okay? What about your head?
  • What did you eat for lunch today?
  • Who do you spend your time with at school? What do you do during recess?
  • Do you know what’s making you feel sad?
  • Are you ever scared?
  • Are you able to remember what the teacher says in class?
  • How are you feeling? How can I help you feel better?
  • Do you want to talk to someone else about this problem?
  • Do you want to hurt yourself? Do you wish you weren't alive?

Top 5 Takeaways

  1. Be honest and open when communicating
  2. Speak at a developmentally appropriate level. Younger children mean fewer details. Older children = more details.
  3. Discuss mental health in a safe space
  4. Watch for heightened reactions during discussions
  5. Listen actively and allow for open, non-judgmental dialogue between you and your child

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