Mental health has long been plagued by stigma. Although there is plenty of energy being devoted to removing the stigma of mental health among adults, far less time and attention has been devoted to discussing mental health regularly with young children, instilling a familiarity and comfort with mental health from an early age. Fortunately, there are techniques and practices that have been identified as safe and effective ways to broach the subject of mental health in with young children, ranging from preschool age to elementary age. We have even got a series on KiddyCharts that focuses on encouraging open chat about mental health with children.
Why the topic of mental health?
Before diving into learning more about how to discuss mental health with children and adolescents, it is first important to understand why doing so is valuable and worthy of time and attention. Mental health has long been associated with superstition and contempt. From religious institutions that considered symptoms of poor mental health tantamount to demonic possession, to modern-day interpretations of conditions like Multiple Personality Disorder, people battling mental disorders can feel as though they constantly need to defend themselves or hide their conditions. Parents can also feel this pressure when their children have mental disorders, from a developmental disorder like Autism Spectrum Disorder to separation anxiety.
Normalizing the discussion of mental health without judgment or cruelty is vital to encourage more people to seek help for their symptoms, and to relieve people with existing or new mental health conditions of their fears regarding their relationships, educations, and even careers. When mental health is de-stigmatized, people are far less likely to fear repercussions of receiving a diagnosis or reaching out for help. Introducing the topic at a young age can do wonders in removing stigma, and can even encourage children to come forward when they begin to experience troublesome symptoms, themselves.
3 ways to discuss mental health in childhood
Bringing up the topic of mental health can be difficult when you are engaging with a child. Children can easily and quickly misinterpret things, and require certain language in order to digest difficult topics. Despite the inherent difficulty, however, there are some simple ways to bring discussions about mental health into the sphere of your communication with your child or your students.
Model your own journey
Parents and educators alike can broach the subject of mental health by discussing their own relation to mental health. From a personal struggle to a struggle with a close friend or family member, parents and educators can show children that mental health concerns are not frightening or unusual by expressing their own experiences with mental illness or even simple mental concerns. By modeling openness and a willingness to tackle hard things, parents and educators can pave the way for children to do the same.
Children are extremely aware individuals, more often than not. Parents and educators frequently need do little more than encourage questions, as children may start the conversations without being prompted. When children are out and about and see someone exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, or have a friend with a disorder, or even see symptoms or medication for a parent or sibling, welcome any questions they may have about those things.
Bring it to life
Children are often tactile learners, and using tactile elements in your discussion may prove extremely helpful. From teaching mindfulness practices like children’s meditation to completing worksheets and coloring pages on different concepts of mental health, parents and teachers both can help children develop a distinct sense of comfort and familiarity with topics relating to mental health and wellness. Many schools offer resources for this exact task, as do early childhood development specialists.
Bringing up the topic of mental health with young children can seem daunting, but it need not be a painful or confusing act. With preparation, honesty, and plenty of kid-friendly language, adults can help children grow comfortable with the topic of mental health, while teaching them to recognize warning signs and areas of concern in themselves and others.
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Here are some other ideas for resources too.
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This is a collaborative post.