Every parent will have to have a tough conversation — or nine — with the kids at some point, whether it’s talking about consent and rape or grief and loss (hopefully you’ll discuss all of the above eventually, not necessarily all at once). But while these kinds of topics are clearly serious and necessary to address, one subject that needs to be brought more to the forefront in parent-child conversations is the discussion about mental health.
But why is it imperative for parents to talk to their kids about mental health? Well, according to postdoctoral psychologist, Brad Stevens, Ph.D., having an ongoing and open conversation about mental health is key for the development of their psychological wellness. “Talking to your kids about mental health [will] not only destigmatize the topic, but also help kids to become more self-aware and psychologically minded,” Stevens tells SheKnows. And when self-aware and psychologically minded kids grow up, they’ll “more likely grow into self-aware and psychologically minded adults,” continues Stevens.
And now that we’re all quarantined with our kids (and honestly, most of us are struggling with it), it’s the perfect time to bring up this important subject. That’s why we connected with a couple of experts to explain how you can navigate this topic with your child. Because while it might be hard to discuss, doing so will not only benefit your kids’ relationship with you but their relationship with themselves, too.
Build a capacity to discuss mental health as early as possible.
Before you can begin to have in-depth conversations about mental health with your child, it’s important for you to begin building a strong trusting foundation between you and them. “[W]e have to make sure that the child has a foundation of trust with us and the history of what we call emotional attunement, which builds the ability to have what’s called a top-down functioning (aka the ability to think or talk about something as abstract as mental health),” says family psychologist and author of Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges, Mona Delahooke. “If you talk to a child about something before they have the infrastructure of dealing with emotions and seeking help when they need it, it’s not going to help because you can’t just talk about mental health. You have to live it.”
So how can a parent begin to build this trust and foundation? They should learn how to be more attuned to their own emotions to develop a healthier and better relationship with their own mental health. “Infants, toddlers, and children need adults around them who [are] attuned to their emotional needs,” says Delahooke. “[I]t’s not what you say to your child, it’s how you are with your child. Our presence and body language [form] the infrastructure for psychological resilience and mental health.”
Help your kid “assemble” their feelings.
“Parents/caregivers can help their kids begin to develop [a] vocabulary [so they can] make sense of and understand their own internal experiences and talk about them with others [they trust],” says Stevens. Doing this will help your child begin to understand and become more attuned to what they’re feeling on a daily basis, which, in turn, can help them have an easier time identifying how others are feeling as well.
When you’re beginning to help “assemble” their emotions, you want to ask them, “What’s the name of the emotion you’re feeling? What are the sensations you’re noticing in your body? What are the sentences (i.e., thoughts) going through your head? [And] what do you feel like doing right now (i.e., what’s your ‘action urge,’ such as crying or hiding),” according to Stevens. Don’t worry if they don’t know how to answer these questions right away. Identifying what they’re feeling will take practice, and the assembling will go much easier once they learn how to match the correct words with their emotions. Just give them the space to do so. When you rush them, they can’t learn and grow and may begin to resent this practice.
Explain how they can view their own emotions.
Once you help them identify what they’re feeling, you also want to articulate how they can begin to manage and view these emotions from a more positive standpoint. While kids might begin to have a grasp on what they’re experiencing, you don’t want them to find ways to avoid these feelings or not have the ability to manage them in a healthy manner when they’re uncomfortable dealing with them.
For instance, Stevens suggests for parents/caregivers to communicate that “although emotions might feel uncomfortable, emotions aren’t dangerous and don’t last forever; they don’t happen randomly; they don’t have to control how we act; and there are always things we can do to make them feel more manageable and less intense.” At the end of the day, you want your kid to understand that emotions are nothing to be afraid of. And even though society may insinuate that there’s one “right” way for children to connect with their emotions, that’s just not how it works.
Be careful not to stigmatize mental illnesses.
Of course, when you begin to talk about mental health with your child, it’s natural for the conversation about mental health challenges to come up. But before you start going down the list of naming every single disorder under the sun, you want to be careful that you’re not stigmatizing them in any way.
According to Delahooke, you should try to “talk about individuals [who] children know and reflectively ask the questions — like ‘have you noticed anything about Uncle Johnny you would like to talk or ask me about?’ Let children lead and you follow.” To avoid stigmatizing mental illnesses, it might be best to help children develop compassion for those who suffer. “Parents can explain that sometimes people find themselves feeling really stuck — maybe they’re having trouble understanding their thoughts and feelings, maybe they’ve stopped doing things that deep down they want to be doing, or maybe they’ve started doing things they’d rather not be doing. No matter what the case, there are always adults who are available to help people get unstuck,” says Stevens.
Model what a healthy relationship with mental health looks like.
While you can talk the talk, you also want to walk the walk. Parents/caregivers who showcase how they maintain and regulate their own emotions and mental health will have an easier time communicating with their kids about their mental health because the kids are already familiar with this “language.” “When parents/caregivers demonstrate for their kids their own communication/discussion about their own internal experiences, it normalizes this process for their kids and facilitates their kids’ learning to do this for themselves,” says Stevens.
If you’re unsure of how to actually “walk the walk,” Stevens suggests for you to label your own emotions and identify the cause(s) for your own reactions in front of your age-appropriate kids. Plus, you can also “model [your] engaging in-adaptive activities to render [your] own experiences of uncomfortable emotions [to be] more manageable.”
Make it a routine.
If you want your child to develop a healthy relationship with their mental health, it’s ideal to implement these conversations and vocabulary into your daily interactions with them. This means you want to discuss emotions and mental health, not just when they’re experiencing a bad day, but when they’re having good days, too. When conversations about mental health become the norm, children will become more comfortable talking and identifying their own and others’ emotions and have fewer inclinations to resist talking about their experiences with their parents/caregivers.
However, keep in mind that it’s normal to have your kid resist these kinds of conversations, especially in the beginning. While you can see if your kid might be willing to write or draw about their emotions if they’re resisting, Stevens suggests not to push it. “[I]f [your] kid continues to resist and/or has a really tough time, [you] should respect that and make space for it by letting [your] kid know that that’s okay and that [you’ll] be here if/when they change their mind and want to talk,” says Stevens. “Parents/caregivers being appropriately responsive to their kids is also a key ingredient in the recipe for their kids’ psychological wellness.” After all, we just want what’s best for our kid(s), right? Right.
A version of this story was originally published in October 2019.
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