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Talking to Children About Mental Health

How to Discuss Mental Health with Children

Mental health is a complex topic, and sometimes even adults struggle to understand its intricacies. It can be challenging, as a parent, to know how to explain mental health to children. At Palms Behavioral Health in Harlingen, Texas, we want to provide parents with the tools to have a helpful and age-appropriate discussion with their kids about mental health.

Why You Should Discuss Mental Health With Children

Parents may believe that mental illness is a painful and complex topic and that they are doing their offspring a favor by avoiding the subject. In reality, there are a lot of good reasons for talking to children about mental health, some of which include:

  • Providing children with the vocabulary to discuss things they might experience – Most mental illness begins before the age of 18. Unfortunately, children and adolescents often wait years to receive treatment for mental health because parents don’t recognize their symptoms and young people don’t have the words to express what they are feeling.
  • Giving children permission to talk and ask about mental illness – Talking openly about mental health can remove the stigma and shame surrounding the topic. This is a big step toward building a world where people feel safe reaching out for help when they are fighting mental illness. It can also help children to recognize that it is not their fault and they are not defective if they develop a mental health condition themselves.
  • Allowing children some insight into why people around them may behave as they do – Chances are that your child will not reach adulthood without meeting someone with a mental health condition. There may even be people in your own family, friend group, or faith community who struggle with mental illness. Not understanding why these individuals behave differently may lead to fear or cause the child to think that the person’s behavior is somehow their own fault. 

How to Discuss Mental Health with Children

Although mental health can be complicated, it can be explained in simple terms that children will understand. Parents can explain that: 

  • There are different types of sicknesses. Some sicknesses make a person’s body ill and some make their mind work differently. Being sick doesn’t make a person bad or dangerous. It just means they might not feel good sometimes.
  • When a person has an illness that impacts their brain, they might take medicine, just like people do who have a physical illness. Sometimes they take medicine for just a little while, or they might take medicine for a long time. 
  • People with mental illness sometimes find it helpful to talk to doctors who specialize in treating illnesses in peoples’ brains. These doctors can teach them ways to handle their illness so they don’t feel so bad. 

As kids grow older, additional conversations can provide them with further information and answer questions they might have. It may be helpful to focus on symptoms the child can relate to. Some examples might include:

  • Depression – parents can explain that this sickness sometimes makes people feel sad more often than other people. It can also make them feel tired and cause them to think they are a bad person when they are not.
  • Anxiety – a child can understand fearfulness and worry. Parents can explain that this illness causes a person to feel extra worry and fear. Kids might find it helpful to know that people who are anxious might need to take a break somewhere quiet and do deep breathing to help them calm down. Parents can even model deep breathing exercises for their children.
  • Bipolar disorder – kids know what it is like to feel very excited and happy, and they know what it is like to experience unpleasant feelings. Parents can use this knowledge to explain the ups and downs people with bipolar disorder experience and why a child might notice that a person they know with this condition may act very differently on different occasions.

Additional Resources

Your local library may have age-appropriate books about mental health for children. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also offers a mental health coloring book and in-person and online presentations about mental health specifically for middle school and high school-aged students. This training is called Ending the Silence. Adults can also take courses like Youth Mental Health First Aid to equip them with the tools to support young people who are experiencing a mental health challenge.

At Palms Behavioral Health, we support adolescents, adults, seniors, and their families through a variety of mental health struggles. Our team is committed to giving our patients and their loved ones the tools they need to understand and navigate mental illness.

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