Breaking the Stigma: How to Talk to Kids About Mental Health
What was your experience with mental health growing up? Did your family openly discuss hardships, struggles, and difficult feelings (anger, sadness, resentment, anxiety, bitterness)? Were you told to keep your thoughts to yourself? Was mental health a taboo topic? Unfortunately, many of us entered parenthood without knowing how to talk to kids about mental health. Our parents never talked about it, and we never talked about it. However, this is not only doing a huge disservice to ourselves but also to our children. That’s why the Racing for Mental Health team is here to share some valuable tips on how to talk to kids about mental health.
The Impact Talking About Mental Health Makes
A recent study revealed that children who reported having a parent with poor mental health were likelier to have poor mental health and general health. In addition, another study found that children who talked about mental health with their parents were more likely to seek help when needed and were less likely to feel ashamed or embarrassed about mental health issues. Yet another research group found that talking about mental health and reducing stigmas surrounding it also results in children having more positive attitudes towards seeking help for mental health concerns. Finally, a study revealed that children who received social support from parents, teachers, and peers were less likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Discussing mental health with your children gives them vital tools to benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Starting The Conversation About Mental Health
Talking about mental health is challenging, and we often don’t know where to start. Below you’ll find several ways to start the conversation and tips for how to go about it.
1. Start Early
It’s never too early to begin talking with your children about mental health. We are born with emotions, feelings, and thoughts meaning our mental health starts when our physical health starts the second we come into this world. Starting the conversation early can normalize mental health and make it easier for your children to talk openly about their feelings as they grow.
Here are a few tips for early conversations about mental health:
Use everyday opportunities: You don’t need to set aside a special time or place to discuss mental health with your child. Use everyday opportunities, such as when your child is angry over a lost toy, frustrated because of a sibling, or crying because they feel overwhelmed.
Create affirmations: daily affirmations, especially with young children, can help them feel confident and more open about what’s happening with their mental health. For example, “I am little. I am learning. I make mistakes. That’s okay. I have big feelings. We all do. I am loved. I am accepted. No matter what I feel. Even on hard days.”
Talk about what feelings feel like: Helping your child learn what an emotion feels like in their body helps them learn how to identify and regulate their emotions. For example, when your two-year-old bursts into tears when you leave the room, it can help to state, “Are you feeling anxious?” as your child gets older, talk about what their body is doing when they feel the emotion. For example, “When I’m anxious, my stomach hurts, and my heart beats fast.”
Be open and non-judgemental: Encourage your child to share their feelings without commenting or condemning them. Validate the way they’re feeling. However, we want to note that validating a feeling does not mean validating a behavior. We can feel however we need to feel in a moment, but that doesn’t mean we act on those feelings.
Use age-appropriate language: Use language your child can understand and relate to. For younger children, you can use simple terms like “feelings” or “emotions,” while older children may be more familiar with terms like “anxiety” or “depression.”
Listen actively: Listen to your child empathetically and without interrupting or dismissing their concerns. Show that you are fully present and engaged in the conversation. This means putting your phone down, dropping the dishes, and clearing your mind from your “to-do” list to be fully present.
Focus on solutions: Help your child develop problem-solving skills by brainstorming solutions together. Encourage them to think about what actions they can take to manage their emotions or seek support if needed.
2. Model Empathy and Understanding
Model empathy and understanding for yourself. Your children are watching you and learning how to treat themselves based on how you treat yourself. Do you put yourself down regularly? Do you expect perfection? Do you disregard your thoughts, feelings, or emotions? Your child is learning how to address their own mental health by watching you address yours. Give yourself empathy and understanding on the hard days, and remember to treat yourself like someone you love.
3. No Feelings Are “Bad” Feelings
As humans, we constantly strive to make order out of chaos. Because of that, we love to categorize and classify things – even our feelings. Growing up, we’re commonly told what “good” and “bad” feelings are. However, there really isn’t any such thing as a good or bad feeling. There are poor reactions to feelings, and certain feelings definitely don’t feel as good as others, but feelings in and of themselves aren’t bad. Really, a feeling is just your body’s chemical reaction to a particular circumstance or situation. When talking with your children about emotions, try to avoid categorizing feelings as good or bad. Instead, validate that all feelings are part of the human experience. Viewing and discussing feelings through this lens helps open the door and spark conversations about responding to complicated feelings in helpful and not harmful ways.
4. Avoid Stigmatizing Language
When discussing mental health with your child, avoiding using negative language or terms that may make them feel ashamed or embarrassed about their struggles is important. Instead, it’s essential to focus on the fact that mental health is a normal and healthy part of life. Everyone experiences ups and downs in their mental health, just like their physical health.
For example, instead of using derogatory terms like “crazy” or “insane” to describe someone struggling with a mental health condition, use positive language like “experiencing a mental health challenge.” This helps remove the stigma often associated with mental health issues and encourages your child to see mental health as a normal part of life.
Additionally, try to frame conversations about mental health in a positive light. For example, you might talk about how taking care of our mental health can help us feel happier, more confident, and better equipped to handle life’s challenges. You can also emphasize the importance of self-care activities like sleeping enough, eating well, investing time in the things that bring you joy, and spending time with loved ones.
Using positive language and framing mental health in a healthy and normal way can help your child develop a positive attitude toward mental health and encourage them to seek help when needed.
5. Be Honest About Your Experiences
When talking to your children about mental health, be honest and open about your own experiences and feelings. Share times when you felt overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, stressed, or angry. Telling stories of triumph and failure helps show your children that you’re a safe person to come to with struggles. In addition, it can help your children feel more comfortable talking about their own experiences and feel less alone.
Mental Health Conversation Starters
We know approaching the topic of mental health can feel intimidating. That’s why we have a few practical suggestions on how to initiate these invaluable conversations:
- “I’ve noticed you haven’t been acting quite like yourself. What can I do to help you?”
- “What does [insert emotion name] feel like?”
- “I’m always here to listen when you want to talk about anything on your mind.”
- “How are you feeling? We all have bad days, and that’s okay.”
- “I know mental health can be a difficult topic to talk about. What can I do to help you feel comfortable talking about it openly and honestly?”
- “I’ve been feeling a bit [insert emotion] lately, and I was wondering if you’ve ever felt that way too.”
- “I know it can be tough to talk about mental health, but I’m proud of you for being brave enough to bring it up.”
Let’s Talk About It!
We emphasize that seeking professional help when your child needs it is important. Always provide resources to your child to learn more about mental health, such as books, workshops, or websites. We know raising small humans to become the best they can be is a daunting task. As always, we’d love to help support you on your journey. Feel free to comment below and share your thoughts, questions, or fears about how to talk with children about mental health.