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How to Talk to Children About Mental Health

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Children are more tuned in with their surroundings and are much brighter than we, as adults, give them credit for. Often parents, guardians, and educators stray away from talking to children about mental health because we may think and feel they do not understand the subject, or by talking about mental health, we may increase their likelihood of developing a mental health disorder or we, ourselves are uncomfortable talking about mental health. Hence, we stray away from this subject with our children. Research has shown that when parents or caregivers talk openly in language that their children can understand, they are more likely to understand mental health, especially a mental health disorder that a parent is struggling with. It helps the child cope better. Talking about mental health with your child can help them make sense of their observed changes in others who have a mental health disorder. It can also help them make sense of their signs and signs and symptoms if they have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Additionally, it can teach them empathy and help break down the stigma associated with mental illness.

Use age appropriate language: The younger the child, the fewer details you need to give. Use simple language to describe feelings, signs, and symptoms, and try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you have more than one child in different age groups, it may be wise to talk with each child separately as speaking with your five-year-old about depression should sound much different from communicating with your 13-year-old. Remember that facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice are just as essential communication methods as words. Watch for reactions during the discussion and slow down or back up if your child becomes confused or looks upset.

Use books or art: Look into purchasing children’s books about mental health and read along with your child, or ask your child to draw a picture of how they feel emotionally. Depending on the age and developmental stage, children may not express themselves with the right words, but they most likely can express themselves through drawings. Many children’s books are available that focus on mental and emotional health. Below are a few:

The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
Thank You Body, Thank You Heart by Jennifer Cohen Harper
Bentley the Hippo by Argyro Graphy
Some Days I Flip My Lid by Kellie Bailey

Let them ask questions: Children are curious by nature, so it is important to give them time to ask questions and make sure you answer their questions so that they understand. Encourage children to ask questions at all times, not just when you have a conversation with them about mental health. For example, if they have a question about a friend at school or a stranger they see on the street, encourage them to ask questions about what they see and feel.

Have frequent conversations: Having regular discussions with your child about emotional and mental health can help them understand that this is a normal way of life. The more you talk about this subject, the more likely your children will begin to understand and normalize mental health. Have conversations at the dinner table, before bedtime, in the car, and whenever you are with your children, without other distractions.

Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide: Talking about suicide does not increase the risk for suicide. Instead, talking about suicide educates and empowers others and can help your children understand the warning signs. If you are uncomfortable talking about suicide with your child, you can choose to read them a children’s book about suicide or consider meeting with a therapist to discuss this topic.

Discuss self-care and prevention: Self-care and mental health prevention are fundamental aspects of mental health. It is essential to talk to your children about boundaries, friendships, activities that they enjoy, alone time, and asking for help when they are struggling. Self-care is not just something adults do, but children also need to learn about self-care. Self-care activities for children can include: taking time away from the screen, playing outside, baking cookies, reading a book, scheduling a play date or joining an afterschool activity,

The earlier, the better: Conversations about mental health should start as early as possible, potentially before your child enters school. They will most likely engage with another child who has a mental health disorder or who has a parent with a mental health disorder.

Ask direct questions that invite your child to provide answers: Asking your child questions about their day, emotions, and feelings are important ways to start talking to your child about mental health. A few questions you can begin asking include the following:

Can you tell me more about what is happening?
How are you feeling?
Have you had feelings like this in the past?
Sometimes you need to talk to an adult about your feelings. I’m here to listen. How can I help you feel better?
Do you feel like you want to speak to someone else about your problem?
I’m worried about your safety. Can you tell me if you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?

Common mental health disorders diagnosed in children

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
Conduct Disorder (CD)
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Tourette Syndrome
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

About AKUA Mind and Body

AKUA Mind and Body is a full-service treatment center that provides residential treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, and virtual treatment to both men and women struggling with a substance use disorder, a mental health disorder, or both (co-occurring disorder). AKUA Mind and Body provides compassionate, evidence-based treatment to all individuals and families. We combine evidence-based medications and psychotherapy approaches with holistic therapies such as meditation, yoga, and equine therapy, as we believe in treating the mind, body, and spirit.

Our clinical staff and ancillary treatment teams take great pride in the care that we provide to our clients and their families. From intake to discharge, we believe in treating the client as an individual and not just treating the disorder. As a result, we provide individualized treatment plans for every client. We offer our treatment services across many locations in California, including Orange County, Newport Beach, San Diego, and Sacramento.

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