My first rule for dealing with mental health was we wouldn't talk about mental health. Coming from a family with a history of massive depressive disorders, suicide, and a steady stream of antidepressants running through the veins of many, my hope was that my children and I would be spared.
It was naïve, but I did not go into parenting prepared because I didn't want to face the realities of this happening to my crew. Reality knocked me off my feet a couple of years ago when I found myself struggling with anxiety while one of my kids periodically battled obsessive compulsive behavior. Another child jumped on the anxiety train with me soon after.
With a world that looked nothing like my idealized, perfectly mentally healthy vision, I was at a loss for how to move forward. How do we talk to our kids about the illnesses no one can see?
Why we don’t talk about it
Parental guilt is a heavy burden, and it keeps us from talking about mental illness in children. Not only do we avoid discussing it with our kids, but many are ashamed to share these struggles with other adults.
When my daughter washed her hands so often that they bled, I blamed myself. She has Celiac disease, and washing hands is one of the best ways to keep her safe from gluten. However, I felt my training led her down a path of destruction, and I just wanted to fix it, not discuss it.
Parents also don't want to label their kids. One mom I spoke to said that offering solutions can work, but labeling the actual issue may reinforce it, making the child feel like they are only the condition they struggle with. She's seen this happen during her time as an educator.
These concerns are real, but so are childhood mental health struggles. According to the Child Mind Institute, mental health issues affect children more than any other health problem.
Though the conversations may evolve over time, starting out a bit vague and moving into more detailed discussions, we need to make sure our kids are comfortable talking about the good and bad feelings and thoughts they experience. Here's how.
We need to face our own views of mental illness before trying to help kids wrap their minds around the concept. Educating ourselves to make sure we don't inadvertently pass down false information or stereotypes is essential. It will also help us answer the plethora of questions that usually come from kids.
Early and often
Talking about mental health should happen the same way talking about sex should: early and often. Amanda Petrik-Gardner, LCPC says "from an early age, talk about feelings." These discussions will look different depending on a child's stage of life, but the sooner kids learn that they are safe to ask questions or express big feelings, the more likely it is that this will be the norm in their worlds.
In very young kids, this can mean giving them words to describe their feelings. As they age, parents can talk more about the signs of anxiety or depression, giving their children a language early on that will help them communicate if things go off course.
Petrik-Gardner points out that we need to "provide a non-judgmental atmosphere when a child speaks about their feelings." This can be a challenge because, as adults, a child's feelings may not make sense to us. However, acknowledging what they are going through is key when identifying problems and helping them through them. We want to talk to them in a way that will keep them talking to us.
It's horrifying for anyone to feel trapped with no options for escape. Talking to kids about possible help for the issues that ail them is key. We tell our kids what possibilities are available when they are physically sick, such as rest, medication, and hydration. We can do the same for mental illness.
When my daughter complained of feeling the need to obsessively wash her hands again, I talked to her about how last time this happened her selenium levels were freakishly low. I pointed her to the possible reason, and then we discussed the fix. The problem wasn't instantly cured but we had a game plan, and that is empowering.
Look to literature
Books are amazing tools when trying to help kids feel less alone as they struggle. Books like "Wilma Jean, the Worry Machine" and "Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears" address mental health struggles head on and give practical solutions for how to deal with them.
This is also a great way to introduce the topic without pointing it out in a child. Characters in the books are the ones dealing with these problems, but kids will often come forward on their own and talk about how they relate to the characters when given the chance. It gives them an opportunity to define what they are experiencing instead of having someone else do it for them.
Reading these books to or with kids can help them feel represented, and it can also offers kids who don't struggle with these issues a way to see things from the point of view of a character who does. Research shows that those who read fiction tend to do better on tests scoring empathy, so reading about these issues to kids who don't deal with them is a great way to help them help others.
Offer them the ability to talk to someone else
We often want to be the one-stop fix for all of our kids' problems. However, we do better when we acknowledge that our children might be more comfortable talking to someone else about their feelings.
Dr. Cindy T. Graham says, "some kids might not feel comfortable talking to their parents about their worries and mood. Parents should be open to allowing their child to speak with any adult who is qualified to handle these topics with whom their child feels comfortable speaking."
Though it can be hard to put this job into someone else's hands, it's important to do it if our child will benefit. It's not always easy to talk about the darkest parts of ourselves with the people we're closest to. A child may find a therapist easier to confide in.
These conversations don't have to be big and scary. Mental health, like physical health, takes work, and our kids need to know what that looks like. They also need to know that asking for support when their minds feel unwell is good and acceptable.