Do you, a close family member, or a dear friend have a mental health diagnosis? Are you worried that your child or teen is exhibiting signs of a mental health issue?

Since research shows that roughly one in five Americans (children and adults) are coping with a mental health issue, odds your answer to at least one of those questions is, “yes.”

Cast Light on the Topic of Mental Health

Colds, flus, a broken bone, or common health conditions are regularly discussed over dinner tables and cups of tea or coffee. However, mental health is often viewed as a “shadow topic,” something to be talked about in whispers, treated like an embarrassment, and hidden away behind the family’s closed doors. Instead of helping those with mental health issues and their families, this neglectful treatment of mental health only exacerbates the problem and can make children feel far more afraid or desperate than they should.

Having open, frank, and honest conversations about mental health issues, their treatment, and to debunk certain myths is the best way to help you children understand more about this very misunderstood subject. Facilitating mental health conversations can feel easier said than done, so we’ve provided some things to think about as well as tips on how you can frame family discussions about mental health – in age appropriate ways.

Always remember that your healthcare provider is an ally. We can also help to start the conversation or to guide questions and answers in our office or via TeleHealth appointments if you’d like professional support.

How do you view mental health issues?

Before you start any conversation with your children, it’s important for you and your partner (and, perhaps, other primary adult caregivers) think about your views of mental health. When you think about your own mental health or diagnoses of family, friends, coworkers, do you feel:

  • Informed?
  • Hurt?
  • Embarrassed?
  • Ashamed?
  • Confused?
  • Hopeful?
  • Hopeless?
  • Judgmental?
  • Compassionate?
  • Empowered?

Establishing where you are at, your thoughts and feelings, and identifying the language you use can illuminate where you need to be more clear before facilitating a conversation with children.

What language does your family/peer group use?

Unfortunately, many of us unwittingly find ourselves using derogatory language about mental health in everyday conversations. For example, how often have you found yourself saying things like:

  • Yeah, she went totally crazy when…
  • I’m a bit OCD about…
  • He can be a complete psycho if…
  • You must be insane if you think I’m going to….

All of those are actually stigmatizing comments that can not only hurt those actually coping with a mental health issue, but also continue to perpetuate mental health myths that healthy, open conversations will actively reduce and eliminate.

Use a healthy emotional vocabulary

Creating a healthy emotional vocabulary, and the ability to accurately identify and talk about emotions is key to learning how to express our feelings.

Since this can be confusing, especially for young children, you can support your family by mirroring their feelings and claiming your own:

  • I can see you are feeling really angry right now…
  • Your tears tell me you are sad…
  • I felt so irritated when I spilled coffee on my new shirt…
  • I can tell your feelings were hurt when…
  • I feel scared sometimes, too, when I can’t think of a quick solution…

The more your family uses “I feel” statements with one another, the more normal the broad human spectrum of human emotion becomes.

Read verwellfamily’s post, How to Teach Kids About their Feelings, for more support around developing healthy emotional expression.

Do you have personal experience with a mental health issue?

Honesty around your own experience with a mental issue – your own or a loved one’s – is a great launching pad for the conversation. It adds a personalized, human touch and helps children empathize with another’s experience. Plus, it normalizes a topic that is more normal than our culture wants to admit.

If you live with a mental health issue, explain it to your children in age appropriate ways. For example, “I sometimes experience something called depression, which means that when I feel sad I may feel it more powerfully than other people. That can make me shut down/stop talking/sleep more, etc. It’s never because of something you’ve done and I have a range of tools I use to help me feel better again…”

Do you worry a child has a mental health issue?

First and foremost, children’s brains are actively developing from birth to around the late 20s. And, because we now know far more about neural plasticity (the brain and nerve pathways’ ability to heal, grow, form new connections) than we used to, we strongly advise not assuming there is a mental health issue at work.

It’s far more likely your child can use some behavioral or cognitive training/therapy to resolve his/her abilities to cope with emotional or challenging situations, or that hormones are raging and your teen needs some support navigating the puberty (and social emotional) rollercoaster.

That said, your pediatrician and/or a licensed child therapist are the best resources for evaluating your child and providing a professional opinion and care plan.

Open listening and asking how you can help work wonders

Open listening that paraphrases what your child or loved one says to you, as well as an honest curiosity about their experience is a powerful source of support. Always ask, “What can I do to support you…” and then wait to see if an answer comes up.

Any individual or family member coping with mental health issues need support in some (or multiple) form. Ideas include:

  • Guidance from licensed medical or therapeutic professionals
  • Peer support of some kind
  • Remaining educated and informed about the latest research about mental health
  • Practicing healthy stress management strategies as a family (not necessarily together, but parents are certainly the most powerful models in a family dynamic)

Would you like to learn more about how to discuss this with your children, your spouse, or family members and close friends? The healthcare team at Overlake is here to help, and we are happy to provide referrals to trusted professionals and organizations here in the Seattle and King County communities.