While raising a child can fill your heart with joy, it also presents unique challenges. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, or a different type of caregiver, being able to successfully navigate complex discussions is part of your job description. And though talking to your child about mental health can feel like walking on eggshells, these conversations (plural!) are key for the development of healthy coping skills, building self-esteem, and overall psychological wellness.
When talking to children about their emotions, experts recommend that adults…
Active listening (nodding your head, mimicking body language, etc.) shows your child you are invested in the conversation and makes it clear they have your undivided attention.
2. Validate your kids’ emotions
As a parent, it hurts to hear your child say they are struggling or depressed. Your instinct may be to reassure them that everything’s ok, but children can interpret that response as dismissive of their feelings. Let your child know you understand they are suffering and that dealing with overwhelming emotions is perfectly normal.
3. Engage in other activities
Many children find it easier to have serious conversations while doing something else. Talking to your child about their mental health while playing a game, crafting, driving in the car, or exploring nature takes the pressure off the discussion and helps remove external distractions. The conversation will feel more casual and less like a ‘big chat’.
4. Be direct
If your child gives any indication that they are thinking about suicide, do not hesitate to directly ask, “Have you thought about ending your life?” Asking about suicide will not put the idea in their head. Instead, it will show them that you see their pain, are not afraid to hear the truth, and want to help.
5. Seek external help if needed
If you are trying to discuss mental health with your child but lack the proper language or confidence, consider contacting a mental health professional. You can start by reaching out to their school counselor or pediatrician.
Sometimes, it can be even more important to understand how not to act. When discussing mental health with your child, TRY NOT TO:
1. Immediately attempt to fix everything
Do not rush to solve all your child’s problems. Instead, ask what they think would help the situation. Be patient and remember that managing a mental health condition takes time.
2. Be afraid
You might be worried about making your child feel worse or exacerbating an already challenging situation. If so, keep in mind that your child does not need you to always say or do the absolute right thing – they just need to know you are there and you care.
3. Show overly strong reactions
Mental health conditions need to be taken seriously, but it is important to show your child that they are a normal part of life. If you are visibly afraid or exceedingly nervous when your child mentions they have been struggling, they may notice your energy and grow fearful of their condition. Show your concern but remain calm and collected.
4. Unload your own story
You may also be struggling and sharing your difficulties can help normalize mental health conditions. Still, this conversation is about your child, and they should remain at the forefront of the discussion. Avoid unloading your own experience or trauma as it may make your child feel like they must manage your mental health or protect you.
5. Place blame
Mental health challenges occur for a multitude of reasons and can affect anyone. No one is at fault, especially not you or your child. Make sure they know not to blame themselves.
If you do not know how to begin a conversation about mental health with your child, try asking one of the following questions:
- “I’ve noticed you’ve been dealing with a lot, how are you feeling lately?”
- “I’ve seen some big changes in you such as [list changes without judgment]. How are you managing?”
- “I realize you might be feeling nervous about [insert upcoming situation]. What can I do to support you?”
- What were the best and worst parts of your week?
- Sometimes, your child will not be in the mood to talk. If that is the case, let them know that you are always here to lend a listening ear and support them.
Healthy communication helps your child feel safe and shows them that you care. Remember, if your child opens up and shares their mental health concerns, it means they trust you, and you are doing a great job.
You got this.
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