An estimated one in five adults in the United States is diagnosed with a mental illness. And nearly half of all teens have a mental disorder.* That means chances are high your child will at some point know or interact with someone affected by mental illness.
Your family’s experience with mental illness might be with someone close, like a parent or sibling, or maybe a bit further removed—a grandparent or cousin, classmate or friend. In any case, it’s natural for children to want to ask questions. That’s both appropriate and OK.
Talking about mental illness can help give children a sense of understanding. But if you’re not sure how to share this information, and how much is OK to share, here are some tips for having mental health conversations in your home.
Be honest and straightforward
- Explain what’s going on in terms your child can understand. I usually try to use a physical illness that children are familiar with, such as a broken bone. “If you break your arm, the bone needs help. When someone has depression, their brain needs help.”
- Be realistic when talking about treatment, and give the child hope. “Doctors have ways they can help people when their brain makes them anxious.”
Make it age appropriate
- Fewer details are fine for preschool-age children: “Your uncle has a problem in his brain that the doctors are helping with.”
- Older school-age kids might want to go more in-depth: “It’s not really clear why some people get Alzheimer’s, but we do know that people with Alzheimer’s like to feel loved, even if they are confused with what’s going on around them.”
- Teens may be ready for more of a back-and-forth conversation. Ask them what they know or have heard about the condition. You can straighten out any misinformation, and you might learn something from them too.
- If your child comes home from school and tells you a classmate has ADHD, take the opportunity to talk about being respectful. “Their ADHD might cause them to be more active than what you’re used to, but they still deserve to be treated with kindness.”
- Help your child see the situation from their own perspective. “How would you want to be treated if you had a problem in your brain?”
Talk about their feelings
- It’s OK to for children to be upset, especially if the mental illness affects their daily lives. Let them know it’s OK to have the emotions they’re feeling. Then talk with them about things they can do to distract themselves and help them feel better: go outside and shoot hoops, scooter, jump rope, read, draw, listen to music, etc.
- Let the child know this illness is not their fault. If a parent has depression and can’t go to work, you can blame the problem in the brain. This will help the child from thinking that it’s their fault that their parent is sad. Reinforce that the illness has nothing to do with the child.
- Identify trusted people your child can talk to safely about their feelings: an aunt, uncle, grandparent, teacher, family friend.
Let them ask questions
- Asking questions can help calm fears. Answer briefly at first, and see if that’s enough. Sometimes short answers are all a child needs or is ready to hear.
- If you get a question and you’re not sure of the answer, that’s OK. Tell your child you’ll look into it and get back to them.
- Validate their thoughts and feelings: “That’s a good question.” “I know it might be confusing.”
These conversations can be challenging. Don’t shy away from them because you’re unsure what to say. Children feel a lot better when they have even a small amount of information from a trusted adult about what’s going on in the world around them. Talking with them honestly while they are young can also help pave the path toward their being comfortable talking about their own mental health as they grow.
*The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)