The stigma surrounding mental health has plagued our society with confusion, fears, and downright misinformation. This has led to centuries of viewing mental health as an almost taboo subject - only gaining a household name recently.
Even then, many families still choose to turn a blind eye to the topic of mental health.
This method greatly damages children and can cause them a lifetime of suppression and frustration surrounding their own struggles.
So, as parents, how do we encourage and normalize the conversation around our child's mental health? How can we speak to them about it so they’ll listen?
Why Don’t Children Talk To Their Parents About Their Mental Health More Often?
It hurts when you realize your child isn’t or won’t talk to you about their mental health. All you want is to see them happy, so what has created this concrete wall separating the two of you? Before you fully dive into learning how to normalize the topic of mental health, it’s important to understand the roadblocks preventing your child from reaching out in the first place.
A few reasons children choose not to talk to their parents about their mental health include:
● Your child doesn’t know what to say or how to word what they’re feeling.
● Your child may feel ashamed or embarrassed.
● Your child doesn’t want to scare you.
● Your child may hide the root cause from you (i.e.: sexual assault)
● Your child may not feel like they can trust you
● Your child may not feel like you will understand
● Your child may simply not want to talk about it
When talking with your child about their mental health, understand there are many different reasons someone may choose to close off to others, even if they love them dearly. At the end of the day, your child doesn’t owe you an explanation - as much as you wish they did. Building a strong, healthy, trustworthy relationship is key to laying the foundation for this talk.
Signs Your Child May Be Struggling With Their Mental Health
Since childhood and adolescence are phases that involve many seasons of change, it can be challenging to understand what signs to look for that they may be struggling. Children can certainly develop the same mental illnesses as adults however their symptoms may look quite different. Learning how to spot the warning signs can allow your child to get the help they need as soon as they need it.
A few signs your child might be struggling with their mental health include, but are not limited to:
● Constant sadness that lasts 2 weeks or more
● Withdrawing from others or avoiding social interactions
● Hurting themselves or talking about hurting themselves
● Talking about death
● Talking about suicide
● Frequent outbursts or extreme irritability
● Out-of-control behavior that can turn harmful
● Drastic changes in mood or personality
● Major changes in eating: either eating too much or not enough
● Loss of weight
● Sleeping troubles
● Headaches or stomach aches that happen often
● Trouble concentrating
● Avoiding school
● Struggles with academics
Children's most common mental illnesses are anxiety disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, eating disorders, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, and other mood disorders. If you suspect your child is showing signs of a mental illness, it’s crucial to take action immediately.
Tips For Normalizing The Conversation Around Your Child's Mental Health:
Take a moment to consider your goals when bringing up the topic of mental health with your child. Are you trying to “figure out what’s wrong with them”? Or are you more focused on educating them? A positive end goal to strive for is normalizing the topic enough to the point that if your child does feel like they’re struggling, they feel safe and secure coming to you about it.
Talk To Them About Mental Health Often:
This can be a fine line, though. If your child seems incredibly resistant to talking about mental health, it’s best not to force them into it. Forcing this topic can bring about negative feelings and prevent them from ever bringing it up in the future. If they choose not to talk about it in the moment, respect their decision. However, the more you talk about it, the more normal it becomes.
Remind Them That Mental Health Issues Are Common:
As much as we’d like them to be, depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders are not rare - even in kids. Remind your child that whatever they’re feeling has also been felt by millions of people in the past, and they’re not alone in their struggles.
Bring Up Your Own Experience:
An incredibly powerful way to normalize the topic of mental health with your child is to talk with them about your own experience. Maybe you suffer from anxiety, or you had crippling depression as a teenager. Kids can hear “they’re not alone” all day long, but to find out you went through a similar situation can help them gain an entirely new perspective.
Validate Their Feelings:
One of the biggest mistakes many well-intentioned parents make when discussing mental health is their impulse to minimize their child's sadness or anxiety. When your child comes to you and expresses they’re sick to their stomach about the upcoming school year, confirm what they’re feeling rather than simply saying “oh you have nothing to worry about, everything will be fine!”.
Keep Your Discussions Private:
If your child decides to open up to you about their mental health, keep that discussion between you and him or her. Unless your child is talking about suicide or harming themselves or others, your talk should remain private. Your child is confiding in you, not the neighbor or their aunt who lives four states away. Respect the courage it takes for your child to speak up by being a safe, trustworthy space for them.
Normalizing the topic of mental health with your child doesn’t have to be overly confusing. And while it’s simple, it’s not always easy. Talk about mental health often with your child and respect their boundaries if they choose not to open up. If they do, make sure to validate what they’re experiencing rather than jump to conclusions or impulsively try to fix it. Actively listen to what your child is telling you rather than giving them advice. Ask questions, reflect back on what they’re saying and offer support and unconditional love. That’s what being a parent is all about.