5 Tips for Speaking to Children and Teens about Mental Illness
The Adolescent Transitional Living Program has provided the following five tips for helping you navigate this delicate topic with children and teens.
1. Have an age appropriate discussion.
Younger children may not be able to understand the nuances of the more common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and the treatment may be such that it might not be necessary to say anything. On the other hand, sharing positive treatment experiences with teens is a humanizing way to connect with the kinds of problems they have undoubtedly faced. However, if the mental illness or substance use disorder mandates out of home treatment, even small children need to be in the loop – lying to them poses unnecessary complications.
2. Talk to your mental health provider and be sure you are comfortable, before telling the kids.
As a patient, it’s very important to speak with your mental health provider about the impact of mental illness on family systems and to discuss how it might impact each family member. If appropriate, you may want to have a family therapy session so the trusted mental health professional can reassure family members, answer questions or suggest ancillary supports for the family.
3. Do your homework. Understand your illnesses and its treatment to the fullest.
As a parent, it is important to model positive health related behavior. The cornerstone is becoming an informed consumer. Using trusted resources, learn about your struggles and transform yourself into a reassuring teacher. This can be one of those learning moments, where you explain to your child that everyone has something to deal with. No one is immune. No matter the illness – depression, eating disorder, anxiety, or substance abuse – no family is perfect, even if it appears they are.
4. Let them ask questions.
The questions may take a while to unfold, but are natural. They will take their cue from you. If you are calm and comfortable with what may be a degree of uncertainty, they will be as well. It’s not uncommon for a child to become preoccupied with a parent’s wellbeing or their own health, so it’s important to answer their questions and reassure them.
5. A mental illness is not unlike a physical illness, but this one involves the brain.
It is often helpful to compare mental conditions it to other medical conditions that require treatment, medications or hospitalization.
Additional Resources for Families