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.

Young children don’t understand depression or anxiety as adults do and it can be difficult to find the words.

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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.

3 Comments

Elaine S

Really interested in learning more about how to talk to a child about mental illness when the person that has the illness is the child themselves…

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katherine l

now this is what I was searching for. I kids were not talking properly for a few days, and then I came to realize they have done a terrible mistake, but I was not able to connect with them, After reading this masterpiece it gave me the strength to talk to my kids nicely. these days parent should also take their kids calmly.

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Wendy D

I think that this is so important. My mum had depression and nobody sat me or my sister down and talked about it. My dad seemed to be as scared as us. The only person who talked about it was mum and she would want to tell us all the negative stuff she was feeling.
The idea of feeling responsible for mum’s illness resonates. I didn’t feel responsible for her illness but I did feel responsible for looking after her. I was about 10 years old at the start of it.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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