How To Talk To A Child About Mental Illness (by Cindy Price)

How To Talk To A Child About Mental Illness

Explaining mental illness to a child can be a bit challenging. Young children don’t understand depression or anxiety as adults do and it can be difficult to find the words to explain it to them. As a result, many parents opt not to bring up the issue reasoning that it’s better not to confuse or stress their kids.

What many parents don’t realize is that kids are actually very observant and they will notice if anything is out of the ordinary. So if you, your spouse or anyone in your family is struggling with mental illness, your children are bound to have noticed. They may be confused and even frightened by the changes in the person’s behavior, especially if that adult holds an important place in their lives.

One of the most important things you can do to support your children in this instance is to help them understand mental illness. Taking time to address their questions and concerns will help them understand the illness. This will make it less frightening and mysterious, and give them the tools they need to cope.

Having an open, honest discussion will help your child trust you and will clear up some of the misconceptions they might have about the situation. It will also help to decrease the anxiety that comes from uncertainty. Being informed also lessens the anger, confusion and surprise they might feel if they are left to discover the illness on their own, or if someone else confronts them with negative comments about their ill parent.

Ideas to get the conversation going.

Starting the conversation on mental health early can give your children a better idea of what mental illness is all about. It is a powerful way to reduce the stigma surrounding it.

Here are some tips to help you get the conversation going:

1.  Start with yourself.

Before talking to your child, try to get as much information as you can about the illness your important person is struggling with. The more you know, the more confident you’ll feel and the better placed you’ll be to answer your child’s questions.

It’s also important to be mindful of your own attitudes towards mental illness, and how this might filter through to your child. If you feel that mental illness is shameful or someone’s fault, your child will pick up on this regardless of what else you tell them. This will only add to any confusion, fear or anxiety they have about what they see happening to their loved person.

2.  Pick an opportune time to talk.

In order to improve communication with your child and get them to open up to you, you need to be flexible about where and when this conversation takes place. Some kids feel more comfortable talking and asking questions when playing or doing something else while others prefer a face-to-face sit-down talk.

A news story, series or movie where a character has mental health challenges can be the perfect conversation starter to delve deeper into the issue. You can ask questions, find out how your kid feels and let the conversation flow from there.

3. Make the conversation age-appropriate.

When talking with your child about mental illness, it’s important to tailor the conversation to their age and developmental stage. To enhance their understanding, use language, explanations, and examples that they can relate to.

For instance, you might say this to a 5-year old, “Remember when you had that sore throat and you were all angry and grumpy with us? You were like that because you were unwell. Well, mommy isn’t feeling well right now, that’s why she’s acting grouchy and crying a lot. She still loves us, but she just can’t show it right now.”

Kids usually have their own interpretation of what’s happening so it’s a good idea to ask how they explain their parent’s behavior, listen empathetically then build on what they say while correcting any misconceptions they have.

4. Allay your child’s fears.

Children who live with ill parents often experience anger and even guilt. They may feel that life is unfair to them, then feel guilty for having those emotions. Some may even feel somehow responsible for their parent’s illness.

Dealing with such feelings is crucial in order to help them live happier lives. They need to understand that their mommy’s or daddy’s illness isn’t caused by anyone’s actions. Sometimes life just happens that way and it wasn’t because they were bad kids. Emphasize that it’s normal and ok to feel sad, angry, embarrassed or frustrated and encourage them to find healthy ways to express those feelings.

Remember your kids will take their cue from you so the more you share your feelings, the more comfortable they’ll be talking about theirs.

5. Help them come up with coping strategies.

Keeping your routine consistent, especially when living with someone with a mental illness, will help your children feel safe. Older children will feel better and more confident if they have a plan of action in case something happens. So make sure your children have a list of people to call or know where to go to get help if need be. You can also help them identify a trusted adult they can confide in whenever they want to talk.

Additionally, take time to help them come up with appropriate responses should other kids or adults ask them about their loved one’s illness. Children can be especially cruel to each other so it’s better to prepare your child for teasing from other kids. Practicing how to explain the illness and what they can say will be of great help. For example, your child can say, “My dad has an illness that makes him do that. I wouldn’t make fun of your dad if he was sick so please don’t make fun of mine.”

Finally …

Finally, if you’re living with someone struggling with mental challenges, ask for help. You can join a support group, ask the child’s grandparents or other relatives to talk to your child or even get pointers from a mental health specialist.

While you might not get the words exactly right the first time, having an ongoing conversation about mental illness with your child will help them cope better and live a more positive life.


   

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
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Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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