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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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