Many adults consider mental illness to be a topic too mature for children, but there are numerous benefits in talking to children about age-appropriate aspects of mental well-being. What a typical teenager is capable of understanding far exceeds the comprehension of the average toddler, so it is important to meet your child where they are developmentally.
Why Children Need to Understand Mental Health
Parents should discuss mental health with their children for the following reasons:
- Many mental illnesses begin to manifest in late childhood or early adolescence. Talking to your child about these conditions may make them more comfortable being open with you in the future, should they begin to develop concerning symptoms.
- Mental illnesses among children and teens are expected to rise and/or intensify due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The isolation from friends, worry about the well-being of themselves and loved ones, and general uncertainty has taken potentially greater toll on young people than on adults.
- Some mental health diagnoses have a genetic component, and it could be helpful for young people to understand their own family mental health history for this reason.
- Even if the child you are raising never develops a mental illness, odds are good that one of their friends, classmates, or future co-workers will develop a mental health condition at some point. Your child’s understanding of mental health will allow them to be a better ally to this person.
When & What to Share with Children
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology has some recommendations for what to tell children about mental health at various stages of development:
- Preschoolers – Children this age are most likely to benefit from clear explanations of things they see around them. If an adult is crying, yelling, or otherwise behaving in unexpected ways, this might raise questions for the child. Keep the explanation simple and straightforward. Let the child’s questions guide the conversation.
- School-aged children – At this age, a child may pose more in-depth questions about the things they see and hear around them. They may want to know why a friend’s parent or a family member gets angry so often or why they seem sad all the time. They might see peers developing the initial symptoms of a mental illness and be worried for the well-being of their classmate. Honesty and openness are critical to informing their knowledge of mental health.
- Teenagers – While it may come as a surprise to many parents, teenagers may already know people with mental illnesses. Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions have often already manifested by the time a person reaches high school. By starting the conversation young and leaving the door open for further communication, parents can facilitate a give-and-take discussion. A teenager is also more likely to have complicated questions that may require further investigation to ensure that they are not embracing myths about mental illness.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, medication might be an easy part of mental health for children to understand. Without the stigma that adults attach to mental illness, a child might be able to non-judgmentally view mental health medications in the same light they would view medications people take for asthma, diabetes and other medical conditions. Children are generally able to understand that medicine might not be something people want to take but something they need to do for their own well-being.
Helping Children Understand Their Own Mental Health
As mentioned above, the onset for mental illnesses often occurs in childhood or adolescence. For that reason, it can be very helpful for children to understand their own mental health as part of themselves that they need to care for, the same as they would their physical health.
When to Get Help
If you are a parent whose child is showing concerning behaviors, you may wonder when and where to get help. Your child’s pediatrician is often the best place to start when seeking support with mental health. The National Institute on Mental Health recommends watching for the following behaviors that can be signs of mental illness:
- Frequent tantrums
- Excessive amount of worry or fear
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches with no evident medical cause
- Inability to sit still for an age-appropriate amount of time
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty making friends
- Academic struggles
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
- Low energy level
- Changes in sleep or appetite
- Self-harm behaviors
- Substance use
- Risky behaviors
Highland Hospital treats a number of mental health conditions in children and adolescents. We are eager to support our clients and their families in learning more about mental health conditions and treatments.