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Talking About Mental Illness To Young Kids

Talking about Mental Illness to Young Kids

Mental illness can be a difficult topic to discuss among any age group. Talking about mental illness to young kids is even more challenging due to the subject’s complexity and sensitive nature. However, it is possible to have healthy, age-appropriate dialogues with children about mental illness—and most experts agree that such discussions are essential for several reasons.

Unlike many outward physical ailments, it can be difficult to “see” mental illness. This presents a challenge for parents who may have trouble explaining the concept without direct examples to “show” their children. However, you can start a conversation with young kids about mental health by talking about thoughts and feelings and how they can lead to different behaviors.

Here are some ideas and guidelines for addressing the topic of mental illness with young kids:

Build on What They Already Know

Nearly all young children have had experience with seeing a medical doctor. This allows parents to build on what their kids already know in terms of explaining mental illness. Just as the body contains many external parts and internal systems that can become injured or work improperly, so does the brain and mind.

Therefore, parents can connect mental health with physical health for kids to enhance their understanding. Even very young children know how it feels to have symptoms such as a stuffy nose or a scraped knee. Though these are not equivalents, using examples of physical illness and/or injury to make comparisons and connections to mental health problems provides an initial foundation of familiarity and comprehension.

In addition, it’s important to reinforce to young kids that following the doctor’s instructions is just as necessary for helping with mental illness as it is for physical illness. This includes taking the right medication in the correct way and honestly talking about feelings. By acknowledging that mental illness deserves and responds to treatment, you are helping your kids to normalize reaching out for professional help if they ever need it.

Use Age-Appropriate Language and Information

Age-appropriate information and sensitive language is key to making sure that your children don’t feel confused, scared, or overwhelmed when you talk to them about mental health. Therefore, it’s best to keep explanations and references to mental illness as simple as possible. For most children, this means talking about thoughts and feelings that can lead to both healthy and non-healthy behaviors.

Unfortunately, society often uses pejorative language in reference to mental illness that perpetuates the stigma attached to it. Here are some terms to avoid in discussing mental illness with your child:

  • Crazy
  • Disturbed
  • Insane
  • Troubled
  • Psycho
  • Mental
  • Weird
  • Specific diagnostic words (such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, etc.) that are beyond a child’s scope of understanding

When children receive information through language that is appropriate to their age and level of development, they are able to digest and understand it without unnecessary confusion and fear. Be sure to keep up an open dialogue with your child as they mature and grow older so that they feel comfortable reaching out for further information or clarification about mental health.

Encourage and Answer Their Questions

Not too long ago, many parents would have discouraged or flat-out refused any questions from their children about mental illness, perhaps due to discomfort, lack of knowledge, or an appearance of impropriety. Unfortunately, this may have led to heightened levels of misinformation as well as conveying to multiple generations the idea that mental health is a taboo subject.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement among adults today to “normalize” mental illness as part of being human. To help normalize talking about mental health, it’s important to encourage your child to ask questions and answer honestly to the best of your ability. If your child asks a question about mental illness and you are unsure of the answer, let them know that you will respond to them as soon as you have more information—and then make sure to do so.

Keep in mind that young kids may not know how to phrase their questions in as polite or sensitive a way as an adult would. Children shouldn’t be punished or ridiculed for asking about mental illness. Therefore, if your child asks a question that seems inappropriate or inopportune, be sure to give them an answer and then help them understand better word choices or a more suitable location for the next time. You can utilize helpful resources regarding mental health to build your own awareness and consideration of the topic.

Reinforce Empathy

Talking about mental illness with young kids offers a great opportunity to reinforce their development of empathy. When human beings have a better understanding of others and their situations, they become far less judgmental and critical overall.

One way to reinforce your child’s empathy in terms of mental illness is to allow them to express their own thoughts and feelings without judgment. For example, if they mention feeling nervous or sad about something, be sure not to discount or down-play these emotions. Instead, you can reassure them that their feelings are understandable in the situation they are facing and that you are proud of their courage in honest expression.

In addition, be sure to keep your responses to mental illness and those that suffer from it as nonjudgmental as possible. Parents and other caregivers are powerful role models for kids. If you are able to demonstrate grace and understanding towards those with mental illness, your child will be likely to show empathy as well.

One of the best ways to help your child learn about themselves, others, and the world around them is to encourage communication and unique, diverse ways to observe their environment. At Cognisprings, we support parents looking for educational toys that inspire children to explore who they are, develop their relationships with others, and express themselves through imagination and critical thinking. That’s why we provide books, puzzles, games, and toys that are thoughtfully designed for creativity, stimulation, and curiosity.

In addition, Cognisprings prioritizes fun and educational activities that are screen-free, promote healthy cognitive development, and encourage personal growth and understanding through exposure to diverse ideas, subjects, and people. Family togetherness, such as playing games, is important for creating lasting memories and strong bonds, as well as allowing opportunities for asking questions and communicating in a supportive and loving manner.