How to Talk to Your Kids About Mental Health
Make your home a safe space for open conversation.
Throughout childhood, parents tend to do a lot of talking to their kids about their physical bodies. We teach them to brush their teeth, clean their bodies, use the toilet, cross streets safely, dress themselves, tend to a wound, and take care of themselves when injured or sick. On the other hand, less attention is often paid to discussing mental health.
However, talking to your kids about mental health is important, too. Just like teaching them about how to care for their physical bodies, parents can instruct kids on tending to their brains and emotions, too. Doing so helps set kids up for a solid framework for understanding and coping with their feelings and any mental health concerns that may come up.
Know that it’s normal to feel a bit apprehensive about talking to kids about mental health. Emotions are tricky things. However, you don’t need to be a mental health expert in order to talk to your kids about mental health. All you need is to tune in to your child and their emotions—and start talking.
Why Talking To Your Kids About Mental Health Is Important
Kids need to learn about their emotions, how to talk about them, and how to express their feelings in healthy ways. It’s also key for them to know about common mental health concerns, such as anxiety, stress, depression, and impulse control. Talking about all aspects of mental health helps kids to understand their own feelings as well as those of others.
Additionally, once you start talking, you’re helping to normalize whatever it is your child may be feeling (now or in the future), making it all the more likely for them to come to you when they need support or are struggling.
Hand-in-hand with these conversations is creating a safe space for your child to share their emotions, feel heard, and find validation. Talking about mental health also includes letting them know about effective coping measures for a variety of big emotions like stress, anxiety, anger, or sadness.
When to Start Talking To Your Kids About Mental Health
It’s important to consider your child’s age, maturity, and developmental readiness when discussing mental health topics with them. However, you can start these talks at a very young age, just adjust what you say to their comprehension level.
So, for the littlest kids you’ll just be naming feelings, like “sad,” “excited,” or “mad.” As they get a bit older, you might go into more detail, as in “a smile means you’re happy” or “we cry when we’re sad.” For older kids, you can start delving into the ins and outs of feelings, how to process and regulate our emotions, mental health concerns, and what to do when emotions get too big to handle.
Mental Health Topics to Cover With Your Kids
There is so much to discuss on mental health with your kids. However, there are key basic topics to cover in order for kids to have a full picture of what mental health is and how to keep theirs healthy.
Start by name feelings. This is important for toddlers but also for teens. If you notice your child seems to be acting out or is in a funk, ask them about how they are feeling. If they seem sad, happy, angry, scared, whatever you notice, you can simply say, “you look upset (mad, frustrated, etc.).” Then, ask, “Do you want to talk about that?”
Welcome their emotions
They might say no, they might say yes, but either way you are helping them to gain awareness of their own feelings. And by naming them you are also acknowledging and validating how they feel. By encouraging them to express and own their emotions you are training them in how to understand and process their feelings.
Feelings vs. actions
In fact, it can be helpful to describe for them the emotional landscape that makes up their feelings. Talk about how everyone experiences a huge range of emotions and that feelings are all welcomed and okay. The behaviors that spring from various emotions may not be acceptable, but the feelings always are. Helping to distinguish between their emotions and their reactions to their emotions is empowering.
Then, talk about how everyone can get overwhelmed by their emotions sometimes. This is normal and expected. Coping methods can help. Share age-appropriate options for calming down and getting a handle on one’s emotions. Ideas include talking out their feelings, taking deep breaths, taking a time out, taking a break, walking around the block, taking a bath, exercising, playing with a pet, yoga, mediation, breathwork, massage, taking a nap, listening to music, watching a movie, or talking to a therapist or loved one.
Cover mental health concerns
It’s also important to discuss common mental health concerns like anxiety, insomnia, depression, eating disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Go over the basics of these conditions with your child, keeping their age and developmental readiness in mind when determining how much detail to use. Normalizing mental health issues lets kids know that if they ever have any challenges in this area that they don’t need to be ashamed—and that they can come to you to get help. Talking about these mental health conditions also lets them be more compassionate to others who may struggle with them.
Keep an open dialog
Let your child know that they can always come to you with any questions they have about mental health. Explain to them that their brain and emotional maturity continue to develop well into their teens and beyond. If someone in their life (or a celebrity they like) has a mental health condition, such as depression, you can use that as a talking point as well.
You can also regularly share how you are feeling, such as frustrated, stressed, happy, worried, or excited, to encourage them to share as well. Have regular check-ins to find out if they have any mental health related questions and just to talk about their emotions.
Key Takeaways on Discussing Mental Health With Kids
Talking to your child about mental health is a great way to help your child understand their own emotions, develop emotional regulation, and be ready to cope if faced with mental health concerns.
Use the words that feel right to you and are age-appropriate for your child. But most importantly, make your home a safe space where your child’s feelings are welcome and free to be explored.