As a society, we’ve begun unraveling the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness. Unfortunately, there are still circles where starting a conversation on the subject is met with everything from apprehensive to outright aggression.
Finally eliminating this stigma begins with us and the tools we give the next generation to protect and support their mental health. Here are the things I’ve learned when trying to encourage mental health talks with my kids.
Understand the Subject Matter
For many of us, popular media and stigma have colored our understanding of mental health. We’re steeped in stereotypes, which can embellish our knowledge of the subject matter. Like me, you may fall on the neurodivergent spectrum or live with your own mental health struggles.
Make sure you objectively understand mental health and its various impacts before you start these conversations. Perpetuating the same stereotypes we grew up with isn’t going to help eliminate that stigma or encourage your child to talk about how they’re doing.
Make the Conversations Age Appropriate
Mental health impacts everyone — regardless of age — but it’s essential to make your conversations age appropriate. You wouldn’t start talking about suicide and its statistics with a five-year-old. On the opposite side of the coin, a teenager may or may not benefit from the same tools you would use for a younger child.
Conversations are essential but ensure they’re age appropriate.
Analogies Are Your Friend
Mental illnesses can be challenging to understand — especially for young children — because there are often no physical signs or symptoms to look for. In these cases, making analogies to things they have experienced or physical illnesses they’ve had to can make it easier to connect the dots.
Asthma is a good example, even if your child isn’t asthmatic. They understand that asthma can make breathing hard, so taking medication is necessary during an attack. Asthmatics also need to take steps to avoid their triggers to prevent attacks. You can equate that to taking meds for a mental illness like anxiety or avoiding situations that might trigger an anxiety attack. Even mental health professionals use analogies to help patients understand their diagnosis.
Listen Without Judgment
You never know the kinds of battles someone is fighting — including your kids. Your job here isn’t to be judge and jury, but to listen without judgment.
You want your kids to come to you if they struggle with mental health. They’re not going to do so if you judge them for their feelings or the coping mechanisms they’ve adopted. Yes, this even includes unhealthy coping mechanisms. You can help them develop healthier options, but you’re not allowed to judge them.
We tell kids to put on their listening ears when we want them to pay attention to something. You need to do the same to encourage mental health talks with your kids.
Have Conversations Frequently
If you’ve ever lived with a mental illness, symptoms and experiences can change frequently. For some diagnoses — such as bipolar disorder — the changes can be more subtle and spread across weeks or months. For others like anxiety or ADHD, the symptoms can change daily. Frequent conversations about mental health can help you stay abreast of these changes.
These don’t have to be formal sit-down conversations. You can bring the subject up while driving to school in the morning or while they’re playing at the playground after school. The where of these conversations doesn’t matter nearly as much as the when.
Ask and Answer Questions
Your kids will likely have many questions about their mental health and the tools available to help them maintain it. Make sure you are available to answer these questions. It’s important to mention you don’t need to have all the answers. All you require is the willingness to admit maybe you don’t know the answer and need the time to look it up and learn together.
Asking questions is just as important. Children — especially young ones — often don’t have the words to talk about their feelings or mental health. Asking questions and listening to the answers can give them the prompts they need to get them talking.
Have the Hard Conversations
Talking about mental health can feel unbearably hard. Unfortunately, having those hard conversations is essential. As of 2022, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens between 15 and 24. Talk to your kids and teens about suicide and self-harm and make sure they know they can always come to you. Give them the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline — which changed to 988 — so they have someone to reach out to if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you.
Regardless of your resources, ensure you’re broaching these topics and having these hard conversations. You never know when it might save a life.
It’s Never Easy, But It’s Essential
Encouraging mental health talks with your kids is never easy, but it is a necessary part of parenting in the modern world. Hopefully, these tips help make your job a little bit easier or give you an idea of where to start if you struggle to find the words.
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