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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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