Talking to your child about mental illnesses
Mental health can be a difficult topic to discuss for anyone, including adults. Before talking to your child, ensure that you are comfortable and knowledgeable about mental illnesses. You do not need to be an expert, but you should be aware of common myths, misconceptions and stereotypes around mental health, including mental illness.
People don’t recover from mental illnesses.
Mental illnesses are just an excuse for bad behaviour.
Mental illnesses aren’t real illnesses.
Kids can’t have mental illnesses, like depression.
People with mental illnesses are violent and dangerous.
In addition, you should have an understanding of:
What is mental illness?
What are some common mental illnesses?
Who can be affected by mental illnesses?
How are mental illnesses diagnosed?
What are some common forms of treatments?
The following links are great resources for reliable information:
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA):
Mental Health Information (Calgary)
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH):
American Psychiatric Association - What Is Mental Illness?
Mayo Clinic - Mental illness - Symptoms and causes
Start the conversation… and keep it going.
Talking to your child about mental health can be difficult, but it is doable! You can help provide accurate information and help destigmatize mental health so that they feel comfortable coming to you if they have questions or concerns. . Start small and keep it casual. It can be as simple as checking in with your child regularly.
Ask open-ended questions such as:
How was your day?
How did you feel when...?
Is there anything that you want to talk about….?
Encourage and validate
Be attentive - look interested and invested
Remind them that they are loved and supported
Be open to sharing your thoughts and feelings as well
Demonstrate to your child that expressing and acknowledging difficult feelings is completely normal.
Consider disclosing your own mental health journey in a developmentally appropriate way - letting them know that they are not alone when it comes to mental health challenges. You do not have to go into details, but do not try to hide it. Children definitely notice. While they may not be able to fully understand, keeping things hidden can lead to feelings of confusion, anxiousness, sadness or shame. Expressing your concerns effectively When you approach your child about your concerns, refrain from making judgements or assumptions. When talking to your child, remember to treat it as a conversation, not an interrogation.
Use phrases such as:
“I’m worried that….”
“It seems like…”
“Can you tell me more about….”
“Are you doing okay?”
You may not know the right things to say or the right questions to ask. That’s okay. What is most important is that your child knows that you are there and that you care. Do take into consideration that your child may react in an unexpected way when confronted. They may try to deny or hide the issue. They may become defensive. They may even displace feelings of upset and anger towards you. Do not take it personally. Give them some time and space. Be patient and remain present.
Meet them at their developmental stage and level of understanding. It is important to pay attention to:
how you approach the conversation
the language or terms you use
how specific or how much detail you go into
Younger children will have limited abilities to understand and process information. They may also struggle to identify or express emotions that they may have. It may be helpful to use visual representations, such as emoticons. You can show kids these faces and ask them to point out how they feel.
Your child’s mental health.
Take notice of any significant changes in your child’s mood, functioning or behaviour. Especially if they have expressed any challenges to you directly. Changes in mood and behaviour are normal as children develop but it’s good to take note if changes are consistently impacting your child’s or your families day to day functioning. What to look for:
Issues at school
Changes in sleep patterns
Intense emotionality - sadness, anger, anxiousness, numbness
Changes in behaviours
You can read more about these early warning signs here.
Seeking professional support
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health or are wondering if they may be struggling with a mental health disorder, a mental health professional such as a psychologist or counsellor can help. When mental health disorders are diagnosed and assessed they can be managed and treated appropriately. Children are resilient and the earlier they receive the support they need, the better the outcomes! If you can, look for a mental health professional that specializes in working with children and teens. They are equipped to provide developmentally appropriate treatment and interventions. Show your support and get involved in your child’s treatment and intervention if possible. You know your child the best (even if it doesn’t always feel like it when it comes to mental health) and your input is valuable. Your involvement can help you gain more insight into how to best support your child’s mental health.