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5 Tips for Talking to Kids About Mental Illness

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If you’re a parent and you or another family member has experienced mental health concerns, you might be worried about talking to your children about them. Should you discuss it at all? If you do, what should you say?

Your first reaction may be to avoid talking about it all together. However, I’ve learned as a clinical psychologist that when you talk openly about these issues, it can teach your kids to cope with greater understanding. Also, increased awareness can lead to greater compassion, which can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

When you do decide to open the door to a conversation with your kids about mental illness, here are several important points that can help you manage this situation with greater confidence.

1. Cover the basics.

It’s often helpful to start with simple facts about mental illnesses to dispel some of the common myths surrounding them. For example:

-Mental illnesses are “real” illnesses, just like diabetes or epilepsy.

-Mental illnesses are very common; 1 out of every 4 adults will have one.

-It’s OK to talk about having a mental illness; it doesn’t have to be a secret.

-There are treatments for mental illnesses.

-Most people with mental illnesses can and do get better.

2. Provide reassurance.

Kids might be worried about their family member who has a mental illness, and may even feel responsible for the person’s difficulties. Offer reassurance and reduce their fears by telling them:

-It’s not your fault your family member has a mental illness.

-You can’t “catch” a mental illness from someone else.

-You won’t necessarily get the same illness as your family member when you grow up.

-It’s not up to you to “cure” the person living with a mental illness.

3. Keep the child’s age and level of maturity in mind.

How you talk about mental health issues will vary greatly for children of different ages and developmental levels. For example, a very mature 10-year-old may be able to understand a parent’s mental illness better than an immature 13-year-old.

For very young children, you’ll want to give clear and simple information. Many teens turn to their peers for information, so they might be misinformed. Make sure you’re specific and responsive when they have questions.

4. Make sure your kids feel safe and secure. 

No matter what age your children are, make sure they feel safe, secure and comfortable when discussing mental health issues. Watch their reactions, let them ask questions and slow down or repeat information if they appear confused. If the conversation upsets them, you can always stop and come back later after they’ve had time to process some of the information.

5. If things become difficult, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you’re unsure about how to talk about mental health issues with your children or notice they’re becoming overly distressed, seek assistance from a mental health professional. Child or family therapy can be very helpful in these circumstances. It’s also a good idea to teach your kids how to call for help in a crisis or emergency, just in case such a situation should arise.

Even though these tips can be helpful, there’s no set formula for how to discuss mental health issues with your kids. Also keep in mind there’s never a “perfect” time to start the conversation. But if you’re supportive, loving and honest when you approach the topic with them, you’ll be off to a really great start.

To see more from Dr. Susman, visit his blog

Originally published: October 21, 2015
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