If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with a mental illness, you know firsthand how the diagnosis can impact your life. Mental illness is not only challenging for adults to understand but children as well. With so many myths and misconceptions surrounding mental illness, it’s easy for young people to feel anxious and confused.
With this in mind, here are some tips on how you can speak to your child about mental health.
Be Open – Your child is most likely noticing a change or difference in behavior from mom, dad, or another relative with mental illness. There is no point in keeping it a secret. Be open about the diagnosis and give the illness a name (depression, bipolar disorder…). Doing so will help alleviate some fear and insecurities as well as clear up any incorrect assumptions.
Alleviate Fault or Responsibility – Most kids naturally feel they want to help fix mommy or daddy, or they may feel something they did caused their loved one to not be well. Reassure your child and explain that the illness is not their fault nor their responsibility.
Invite Their Honesty – While you may feel you need to keep a stiff upper lip for your spouse or loved one’s benefit, your kids should feel free to openly express their feelings, whether these feelings be fear, sadness, or anger. Listen to whatever they say without judging what they say.
Invite Questions – Your kids will have a lot of them, so invite them to ask. If they don’t feel comfortable asking questions face-to-face, use a journal. They can write down any questions they want, and you’ll write the answer and give it back to them. Knowing they can come to you and that you are still the parent will give them a much-needed sense of calm and security.
Communicate at a Level that is Age Appropriate – Preschool-age children will need different language than teenagers. They will need less details, whereas older children will want more details. School-age children will take the information shared and begin to worry what it means for them and the family. Be prepared to answer many questions concerning their safety and security.
And teenagers are a unique bunch – you will have to follow your teen’s lead. Some may speak openly, already aware to a certain extent about mental health issues. Some may seem withdrawn and not speak much at all. You will want to continue to check in with them to make sure they are doing okay.
Talking to your kids about mental health won’t be easy, but as long as you follow these tips, you will have an opportunity to share important information and offer love, support, and guidance.
If you feel you and your family could use some extra support in discussing a loved one’s mental illness, please get in touch with me. I would be more than happy to talk about counseling options with you.
Chelsy A. Castro, JD, MA, AM, LCSW