Have you wondered how to approach your child about mental health? Have they asked questions about a family member or a friend or shown signs of mental health disorders?
Mental health stigmas have long plagued our society. It is thus important to normalize mental health at a young age. Building a conversation around this topic can help lay the foundation for more understanding, compassionate, and educated future generations.
Why don’t kids know more about mental health?
There are a variety of reasons why children don’t know about mental health issues, such as not knowing the appropriate time to talk about them or the age they can be clearly understood. Mental health can also be subjective for different families. Here are some of the reasons given by mental health professionals:
- The majority of mental health literature is targeted at sixth grade and up, making it inaccessible to younger children.
- Schools lack funding for adequate mental health literacy.
- Many parents don’t know how to talk to their kids about it.
- Some children grow up believing the stigma that disorders are rare, making them unable to recognize symptoms in themselves or someone else.
Mood swings, anxiety, depression, and disorders are not rare, and children of all ages should be aware of this.
Early signs and symptoms of mental health disorders in kids and teens
If you have noticed any of the following signs in your child’s behavior it is important to tell them without passing judgment. Open conversations are vital for ending stigmas.
- No interest in socializing with friends.
- Irritable or darkened moods (expressing an unusual amount of interest in death).
- Lack of motivation in school and a decline in grades.
Being vigilant can’t hurt. These are not always signs of a mental health disorder, but they can be.
Advice for parents, guardians, and caregivers
Most importantly, listen to a child or teen if they want to talk about mental health. Filter out your suggestions and ask them what you can do to help. Some other ways to make children and teens comfortable are:
- Remind them that mental health issues are common.
- Don’t share what they’ve discussed.
- Offer impartial counseling.
- Don’t minimize what they’re going through by telling them to think differently.
- Validate their feelings.
Talking to specific age groups about mental health
Preschool children can’t understand abstract ideas such as anxiety or depression. They need less information because they are focused on what they can see (conciseness is key). Saying someone isn’t feeling well, but that the person still loves them and needs rest will answer concerns and soothe children.
School-age children tend to want specifics and have more pointed questions. Many inquiries will surround their own safety and that of others. Try to answer truthfully and reassure them.
Teenagers require an open dialogue since most don’t want to be lectured. Teens tend to have misconceptions about mental health and that makes conversation vital. Keep the conversations active and check in as needed.
How can mental health education be more accessible to children?
The first step as a parent, guardian, or caregiver is to educate yourself. Turn to a doctor or mental health provider when kids have questions you can’t answer. Health professionals can help you jumpstart the conversation about mental health. Continue conversations with kids in the hope they talk about it positively with another classmate or teacher.
Another way to make the topic of mental health more accessible is to educate children on the signs and symptoms of disorders in people they love or in themselves and assure them of the treatment options. Treatment could include therapy, exercise, writing or drawing their thoughts, positive thinking, and mindfulness activities.
Resources on specific disorders children and young adults might face
The Child Mind Institute offers guides to parents and caregivers on gaining a better understanding of how diagnoses manifest themselves. The website also includes umbrella topics that don’t fit under specific mental health disorders. The Child Mind Institute advises on:
- Auditory Processing Disorder
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Behavior and Conduct Disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
- Depressive and Mood Disorders
- Eating Disorders
- Elimination Disorders
- Gender Dysphoria
- Learning and Development Disorders
- Non-Verbal Learning Disorders
- Personality Disorders
- Selective Mutism
- Sleep-Wake Disorders
- Substance Use and Addictive Disorders
- Tourette’s and Tic Disorders
- Trauma Disorders
While you might not have to learn about all of these disorders, it’s important to educate yourself on topics that pertain to you, those you love, and those you might encounter in the future. When you know more, normalizing mental health becomes second nature.