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Much of today’s youth are subject to topics around mental health. It’s unavoidable – these discussions fill our news feeds, our schools, our communities and sometimes our own families. This is often a touchy subject, and many caregivers express discomfort and timidity in finding ways to talk about such heavy feelings and emotions with younger children. However, research shows there is no specific age or timeline for these discussions. Some even say the sooner we talk about mental health, the more informed our children will become.
You’re probably wondering just how to start this conversation. Try utilizing a celebrity, popular event or age-appropriate movie as a bridge to initiating talks about mental health. Regardless of your child’s age, labeling their emotions (i.e. sadness, anger, guilt) for what they are can be beneficial to their development. It’s important to validate your child’s emotions and reassure them that it’s “OK” to feel different. The real value will come through when your child knows his or her emotions are nothing to be ashamed of.
Consider some tips on how to start these conversations in an age-appropriate manner:
Preschoolers and younger
Children at this young age have a limited understanding of concepts they can’t visualize. If you’re having a conversation on mental health with a child of this age, it’s critical to keep the dialogue simple and concrete. They will understand more clearly if the concept is visualized. For example, they might ask about difference in physical appearances or about why someone is crying or yelling. Opening the door to conversations on how and why people might feel these emotions is crucial for their development. As a strategy, consider coloring or drawing different emotions with your child for assistance. Search the internet to find engaging activities for your child, like this one.
Those in elementary school might discuss emotions in a more straightforward manner. For example, he/she might say something along the lines of “that person is crying over there, they must be sad,” or “someone is yelling, they’re angry.” It’s important to answer their questions and confirm their probabilities truthfully and directly. At this age, children are definitely more aware of their surroundings and more worried about their safety. You can always reassure them, but continue to be direct and honest. Sometimes, having other family members (such as older siblings) around for these conversations is appropriate for additional perspective and support.
Most adolescents and teenagers are able to absorb and manage more information, leading to more difficult questions. These kids commonly talk more about mental health with their friends or peers rather than their parents, which can be difficult. Offering an open and safe place to discuss mental health for these children is very important. Listen to them intently, and respond honestly and positively. Teenagers are often vulnerable on many different levels, so engaging with through calm dialogue and greeting them with compassion can be helpful.
If you feel your child is experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, seek support. The best and most common avenues to initiate evaluation are through your child’s pediatrician, school counselor and/or a licensed mental health professional.