How to Talk to Kids about: Mental Health and Mental Illnesses

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Talking about mental health and more specifically, mental illnesses, can be a difficult conversation to have with kids; especially those of a much younger age. It can be a complex and heavy topic, because it isn’t so easy to understand – and even to some adults, it can be considered difficult. Besides being a topic that requires deep-diving into and a certain level of emotional comprehension, children may find it hard to make sense of this, particularly as mental illnesses are often not visible to the eye.

Why this conversation is important

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Mental health is just as important as physical health. In the same manner we care for (and talk to) our kids as we nurse their fevers or attend to their injuries, conversations about caring for their heart and emotions are equally as important. Speaking to our kids about this teaches them to value their mental health, and empowers them to seek our help when they feel they need it.

Spreading awareness and opening up doors to having conversations about mental health also helps people become more accepting of those who with mental illnesses. The more conversations we have, the more we debunk the belief that this topic should remain taboo, and the more we help to empower those suffering from mental illnesses to seek the help they need.

Talking to kids about mental health and illnesses can also help in their emotional growth – shaping their patience, understanding, and kindness to others, as well as to their own selves. In fostering their understanding of mental health, we’re also teaching our children to become more in touch with their own thoughts and emotions.

How we can help

1. Explain the importance of the topic

Reinforce the fact that mental health should be viewed in the same manner as any other illness or physical injury. It can cause people to feel sad or hurt, and oftentimes, people may feel like they need a friend.

2. Use analogies and stories to illustrate concepts

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Keep in mind that it may be difficult for kids to comprehend what you are talking about. Young children in particular, struggle to make sense of the fact that anyone and everyone can experience mental illnesses, although the effects of these illnesses aren’t often seen. Using simple analogies and keywords (e.g. likening mental health concerns to a physical or medical problem that the child might be familiar with (such as asthma or allergies), or comparing fluctuating emotions or conditions to changes in the weather) helps them to understand better.

3. Answer your child’s questions honestly

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After explaining, your child may still have some of their questions of their own. Be patient in answering their questions, and maintain an open and honest discussion, listening to what your children may have to say, in order to aid their understanding of the topic. There are also some excellent books and educational programmes that can serve as helpful guides, such as: 

4. Teach your child to identify their emotions

Let your kids know that it’s alright to feel emotions, whilst teaching them to identify when they’re struggling with deeper or more difficult thoughts and feelings. When certain emotions arise (such as anger, sadness or confusion), reassure your child that they can talk to you or someone they trust about how they’re feeling. Explain that sometimes, certain emotions may feel unexplainable, and that is okay. 

If you don’t know where to begin, these conversation prompts may help:

  • “You look sad/anxious today. Is there anything you would like to talk to me about?”
  • “What have you been feeling lately? Is there anything I can do to help you?”
  • “It is okay to be feeling this way. You can always trust me with letting me know how you feel.”

5. Watch out for warning signs

Allowing your child to express their emotions in the way they wish to is important. While some children may wish to talk, some may just want to be held while they cry, and some may want to do something that will make them feel better.

Parents can nevertheless play a pivotal role in keeping an eye out for behavioural changes, such as:

  • Extreme irritability that lead to extreme tantrums;
  • Long-lasting sadness;
  • Withdrawing from friends or playing;
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping habits; or
  • Persistent anxiety and/or paranoia.

If your child is struggling with these warning signs and symptoms, you may wish to consult with their teachers or counsellors at school, or speak to a mental health provider or healthcare professional for advice.

The reassurance our children need

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It can be a painful sight: to witness your child going through something you can’t see, hear, or feel for yourself. Remember that it is important to be patient with yourself, too. Make room for yourself to breathe, sit with the emotions you may be feeling, and ensure that you show up for your child in the best way you can.

Reassure your child that they can always count on you. Let them know you are reliable, and that they can trust you with what they may be feeling. For some, doing an activity they love doing together might help. Whether it’s taking them down to the park, getting dessert together, or staying home to watching their favourite movie, your child may feel comforted just doing what they love to do with you.

A parent’s natural instinct is to ensure that their child is safe and happy; but, remember that no matter how much love you may have for your kids, and how badly you may want them to feel differently, it is impossible to control how they feel. Listening to them and showing up for them when they need you is all they may really need.

By  Audrey Lee 

Audrey is a freelance creative stretching her arms out into a number of things, from product photography to social media content creating. Besides that, when she isn’t behind a camera or social media accounts, she enjoys writing and advocating for all things lifestyle, wellness, and mental health. 

From our team of purposeful, multi-faceted mummies. For editorial or general enquiries, email to us at hello@makchic.com.