Many children these days are growing up in a family where a someone close has a mental illness. Talking to children about mental health isn’t always easy but it shouldn’t be saved for times of crisis. We, as parents have a duty to talk to our children so they can spot the signs in themselves and others, and know where to turn to should they need help.
How do we broach such a subject?
Pick your moments. Children respond well to a good old hear-to-heat, but these conversations do not need to be intense. Often children are more open whilst doing something such as tidying up or in the car on a short journey. Older children may prefer writing a note or sending a message. Whichever suits, the key is to make them feel comfortable enough to talk.
What do we say?
Cover the basics in terms they understand, perhaps use a personal reference. As parents, we often overthink conversations like this making them more complicated than they need to be. At the simplest levels, children need to know that our brains can get sick just like our bodies.
“Sometimes mummy’s brain gets poorly and the doctor helps to make it better”
Use analogies: Ask them what they would do if their tummy hurt? Would they tell someone, would they speak up and see the doctor? Explain that if their brain was not working properly they should do the same and that just because everyone cannot see the tummy ache that it is still real. Don’t be afraid to answer their questions or say that you do not know but will find out. Children want to know is that it is okay to ask questions, tell you how they feel and that gaining treatment is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.
Typical questions children ask:
· Can you catch it? (Answer: No)
· Does it hurt? (Answer: Sometimes it can hurt both physically and mentally)
· Will I get ill? (Answer: You might, but that is okay)
· Is it my fault X got ill? (Answer: No, it is no one’s fault, not even theirs)
Teach them to look out for their friends
Half of all mental health problems are established before the age of fourteen.
Ask them how often they ask how their friends are. Sometimes the simplest question can tell you a lot.
Most importantly, reassure them that it is okay for them to talk about themselves and their friends. Tell them that if they wanted to talk to someone else you wouldn’t be cross.
Finally, it is important to make sure they feel loved and supported. Each child displays/accepts love and support in different ways. It doesn’t matter how it matters that you ensure they feel valued. Children are more likely to be open and honest with you if they feel secure.
Today, more than ever it is important to lift stigma and presumptions surrounding mental health.
Don’t judge a person’s illness because you can’t physically see it.