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Child Mental Health: How to Talk To Children About Mental Illness

How to talk to children about mental illness

Talking with children about mental illness can feel overwhelming for parents and caregivers. Helping your child understand that mental health illnesses affect many families can reduce stigma and raise awareness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four adults and one in five children suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. With the high occurrence of mental illness in our society, it is likely that you and your family know someone suffering from a mental illness.

Here are a few suggestions on how you can talk to children about mental illness:

While you may wish to avoid talking to your child about mental illness, children often notice unusual behavior and can sense when something is different. Being truthful with children can help them understand what is happening. Without such information, children may try to understand mental illnesses themselves, which could leave them scared and/or confused.

Here is a list of things to consider when talking to children about mental illness:

  • Learn the facts. Before you talk to your kids about mental illness, gather as much information as you can from reliable sources including doctors, books, and websites. Your child is likely to ask many questions, so it is best to come prepared with answers. Be ready to explain what mental illness is, who can get a mental illness, why some people get a mental illness, and how people can get help.
  • Be observant. During the discussion, watch for clues about how your child is feeling. Remember, if a child does not want to talk to you, you should not force the discussion.
  • Normalize feelings. Assure your child that his or her feelings are normal. It is normal for adults and children to experience many emotions including fear, guilt, or embarrassment when finding out a close relative has a mental illness.
  • Provide age-appropriate explanations. Children at different age and developmental levels need slightly different descriptions of mental illnesses. See the list below for more age-appropriate suggestions.
  • Communicate in a direct and honest manner. It is important to be direct and clear when speaking with children, or they could misinterpret what you say. If a child asks you a question that you can’t answer, be honest and say you will find out. Click here to learn more about how to communicate with your child openly and positively.
  • Create a comfortable atmosphere. Since this is a sensitive subject, be sure to talk with your child in a safe, comfortable environment. Choose a time and place where you can be alone with your child, such as in your home or while traveling.
  • Use resources. You may find it challenging to talk about this subject, so it could be helpful to look for books and handouts that are written for children to get the conversation started.
  • Reiterate it is not their fault. If you are talking to children about someone they know who has a mental illness, it is important to tell them they did not cause the mental illness and cannot fix it.
  • These age-appropriate suggestions can help in approaching the subject with individual children of all ages:

    Preschool Children

    • Use short, simple sentences with words they understand.
    • Young children are likely to notice and have questions about what they can see (for example, unusual behavior) and hear (for example, yelling or crying).  Be prepared to explain using simple language.
    • Reassure them that they are safe.

    School-Age Children

    • Use a bit more detail. You may consider explaining the mental illness, what to expect, and any possible treatment.
    • Ask if they have any questions and answer honestly.
    • Reassure them that they are safe.

    Tweens and Teenagers

    • Explain mental illnesses and treatments in detail.
    • Ask them if they can tell you what they already know about mental illness. They may have misinformation from friends or media, so be sure to share the facts.
    • Ask if they have any questions. Be prepared! They are likely to have specific, difficult questions.
    • Try to talk through their feelings and emotions with them. This can help in understanding and coping with the situation.
    • Maintain a conversational tone, answer questions as best as you can, and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know or that you will find more information

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