A friend of mine recently found out his mother had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt when he was in the fourth grade. He knew, as an adult, that his mother had struggled off-and-on with depression over the years. But he didn’t know about the suicide attempt—and it brought back some uncomfortable memories.
“I do remember her being gone. I remember that no one would tell me anything except that she’d be away for a while. And I remember worrying that her being gone might somehow be my fault,” he told me. “I wish my Dad or someone would have talked to me a little more openly about it.”
According to the Kim Foundation, more than 26 percent of Americans aged 18 and older are diagnosed with a mental health disorder. A good number of those individuals are likely to be parents—and if not parents, members of a family with children. So it asks the question: When and how should we talk to kids about mental health?
Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, says that talking to kids about mental health issues, especially when a parent or family member is living with a mental health condition, is not a matter of if, but more a matter of when and how. And he says that it can be done even with very young children.
But how do you begin? Howes recommends keeping the age and maturity level of the child in mind as you prepare what to say.
“Consider what the child might need to know. Ask yourself, ‘How does this information benefit the child?’ and ‘How will this help them better cope with the current situation?'” he says. “And there is definitely a benefit to trying to explain why Mom might be crying all the time or why Dad has to go to the hospital—in a way that that makes sense in their world.”
To do so, Howes suggests discussing the condition in a way that you would any other illness.
“There’s often so much stigma and shame that people feel like they shouldn’t talk about mental illness. But if a parent was hospitalized for an appendectomy, we wouldn’t have any trouble talking about that. And if a person had a physical illness, we would be comfortable approaching that, too,” he says. “So talking about mental illness in a similar way is a good start. You can simply say, ‘Mom has an illness. It’s called depression, it’s something that people have sometimes that makes them feel very sad and she’s working with a doctor to help her get better.'”
Howes says you should also shape your description based on the child’s age and maturity level, and you can do so by trying to take a normal experience a child would easily understand and explaining that mental health issues are like those feelings—but often amplified.
“You can say, ‘You know that time when our family dog died and how sad you felt? Well, Mom feels that sad every day,’ or ‘You know how sometimes you feel shy and anxious when you meet a new person, Dad feels that way all the time but he’s getting help to make him feel better,'” he says. “If you give them something they can relate to, it makes it easier for them to understand.” Howes understands that talking to children about mental illness is a complicated issue—and there’s not one “right” way to do it. But he says not talking about it, or trying to cover it up can do significant damage—both in terms of your child’s understanding of the world and the general stigma surrounding mental health conditions. “We all know how perceptive kids are. They know when there’s something going on or something that may be different at home than at other homes,” says Howes. “And if you try to tell them that nothing is wrong, or that there isn’t an issue, what you are telling them is to not trust their own perception or judgment. And we never want to do that.”
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