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Why Parents Should Talk to Kids about Mental Health Early and Often

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We’ve all heard the statistics: 1 in 5 children will be diagnosed with a mental illness by the time they are 13. Although this statistic is an important one, it doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it may alienate many parents, who feel relieved that their child falls within the 4 of 5 who are “healthy.” The problem, though, is that while your child may not have a mental illness, your child does have mental health that needs attention. All of us, 5 in 5, have mental health to attend to; it’s as important as one’s physical health.

It’s not always easy to know what to do when you see your child struggling with her emotions. And this can be made even harder with the stigma around mental illness in our culture. Below are some suggestions on how to be supportive and make the discussion of feelings and the need to ask for help second nature to you and your children.

DEFINE MENTAL HEALTH (AND HOW IT DIFFERS FROM MENTAL ILLNESS)

Mental health and mental illness are, by definition, opposites. Unfortunately, they are often used interchangeably. It’s important to talk about how they are different and to promote mental health as much as possible.

Start a conversation about what mental health is and how to support it. Focus on the importance of balance and that might mean. Helping your child to understand and identify what helps them feel balanced and in control is important in promoting positive mental health and a healthy lifestyle. Learning what helps them feel balanced will promote confidence, encourage them to ask for help when needed and keep them aware of what helps them feel good in their lives. This is something to take with them as they grow and develop.

Take a few minutes to think about this for yourself as their parent, too. What helps you to feel in balance? Are you taking the time to do that for yourself? Modeling how to do it is one of the best things you could do.

TALK ABOUT EMOTIONS

Be open and honest about feelings: yours and your child’s. Don’t try to talk your child out of his feelings; validate instead.

Identify and label emotions. Use your own experiences. Talk about how people feel in a variety of situations. Use shows or books they may be interested in to broaden out how people feel and react in a variety of situations. It is vital to help your children express their emotions in a healthy way and not shy away from conversations about feelings.

BE PRESENT

It is easy, and understandable, to want to swoop in and fix the problem when you see your child struggling with his emotions. Unfortunately, this can actually shut things down and cause communication to stop. Wanting to fix it is about you and your anxiety, not about your child’s reactions and experience. Slow down and allow yourself to be present as a positive holding environment for your child and his emotions.

When your child comes to you, be present, non-judgmental and validating. Your child will let you know when he needs help figuring out what to do, or how to handle his emotions. Initially, though, just be there to listen and support.

SHARE YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES

Stigma is created when we hide, or are secretive, about an issue. It is amplified when that issue is used as a joke or in derogatory ways. For many years (and still today, in some ways), mental illness has fallen into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” category. This prevents us from having open conversations about mental health promotion.

The more matter of fact we can be about our own experiences as adults in the lives of children, the more we can encourage positive mental health discussion. Talking about mental health, and any support one has for it (maybe it’s exercise to help with one’s mood or medication to treat depression), becomes the same as talking about what one does to treat a cold.

ASK FOR HELP

You may be concerned about your child and feel as though you do not know what to do. Maybe she is showing some warning signs of depression that feel more than just sadness. Maybe he is really anxious all the time and nothing works to help him feel more in control of his reactions. Sometimes, we need to ask for outside help. Asking is a strength and not a weakness.

Start with your pediatrician. She should be able to do some preliminary screeners regarding emotional well-being that can help point you in the right direction for accessing help for your child. Additionally, if your child is resistant to talking with you, reach out to an adult they trust and see if that person can help. We all need others to get through the day-to-day. Asking for help with emotional development is no different.

Talking about mental health early and often benefits not only your child, but you as well. It’s time for us to open the conversation, as we all have mental health to manage. Different things will impact us at different times in our lives. Being able to talk about our feelings, while knowing how to manage our emotions effectively, helps us to handle anything that gets thrown our way. Starting these conversations early, and often, with your children, will help them as they grow and head out into the world. They’ll be more confident, self-sufficient and aware, which is ultimately what all parents what for their children.

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