How to Talk to Kids About Mental Health Issues
As parents, we need to talk to our kids about “scary issues.” The stuff nightmares are made of. Stranger danger, drugs, drinking, smoking, bullying, mental health issues, and suicide prevention/awareness. All parents want to believe nothing bad will ever happen to their child, and then the impossible happens. Everyday, kids are kidnapped, overdose, start smoking, trip the kid who’s different from them. Youth suicide has become an epidemic in this country. Everyday a kid attempts or completes suicide. Here is the definitive guide on how to talk to kids about mental health issues (at any age.)
You may be thinking, children who are too young won’t be able to grasp the topic of mental health and suicide. They aren’t too young too grasp the concept of wearing a helmet, don’t talk to strangers, or look both ways before crossing the street, etc. Children are never “too young” to learn about any topic (with a few exceptions.) I’ll give you age specific ways to speak to your kids about mental health issues and suicide.
How to Talk to Kids About Mental Health Issues (Grades K-2)
For kids under the 2nd grade, you should stick to the basics, but definitely introduce the topic of mental health.
1. Mental Health
A mental illness is similar to a physical illness only you can’t see it. Explain how the illness is inside the person’s brain.
2. Trusted Adults
This is a huge topic to discuss with your younger children. Your child should have multiple trusted adults, at school and at home. At school, their trusted adult could be their teacher, principal, school nurse, etc. At home, their trusted adult could be an aunt or uncle, a neighbor, or coach. Explain to your child they can talk to their trusted adult about anything. At this age, kids still feel more comfortable talking to their own parents but it is still a good idea to introduce the concept to younger children.
3. Emotional Intelligence
A good way to explain this concept to your kids is to compare it to traditional intelligence. As they are learning their ABCs and adding, they should also be learning to express their emotions in a positive way. We all feel angry, frustrated, and nervous sometimes. Let your child know, all their emotions are valid, but it’s unacceptable to throw things when we’re frustrated. It’s easier for every one involved, if we talk about our emotions in a positive way, even if they are negative emotions. We, as parents, lose our temper when we’re frustrated. When we do, we should apologize to our kids, no matter their age, and tell them, it’s not ok to lose it every time you feel frustrated. *I know easier said than done, but everything take practice.
Let your kids know what bullying is. Explain to them “Words Can Hurt,” and the impact of those words is some times tragic. Kids usually don’t understand, laughing at a child who gets the answer wrong in class, can be extremely hurtful. Tell your child that kids come in all shapes and colors and to treat every one they meet with respect and courtesy
How to Talk to Kids About Mental Health Issues (Grades 3-5)
It’s at this age that you can start introducing self harm (intentional injury such as cutting, pinching) and an explanation of suicide.
1. Mental Illness
Explain that mental illness is not contagious, it can be hereditary but you can’t catch a mental illness from someone. Be sure to stress to your child, if they are ever feeling sad or nervous for more than a week, tell you. Or have them speak to their trusted adult.
2. Trusted Adults
Reinforce the purpose of your child’s trusted adult. Make sure your child has the contact information for their “out of school” trusted adult. In my case, my two best friends, are my children’s trusted adults. They know that they will contact either of them, if they need to talk. My fiancé is also a trusted adult for my girls. They talk to him all the time about things they think I will get “mad” about.
3. Coping Skills
Discuss how to cope with loss, divorce, and other major stressors. Tell your kids, it’s OK to talk about how they feel to you, other family members, friends, or their trusted adult. Explain to them they are not to blame for the loss (such as divorce or separation.) Talk about healthy coping strategies (talking and doing things with friends, journaling, mediation.) And talk about unhealthy coping skills (eating too much, placing blame, isolating yourself.)
4. Self-harm and Suicide
At this age, you should be able to explain what self-harming and suicide is. Explain to your child what self-harm is, cutting, pinching, burning yourself or it could manifest as pulling your hair out. Talk about why people would harm themselves (trouble at home or school, bullying, lack of confidence.)
Then explain what suicide is and the synonyms for suicide (killed themselves or ended their life.) Talk about some of the reason why someone would want to attempt or complete suicide. Explain to your child what to do if they having those kinds of thoughts. Also, talk to your child about what to do if they know a friend or classmate is having these kind of feelings. Always go straight to an adult if a friend or classmate says they are going to harm themselves.
5. Personal Assets
Analyze your child’s personal assets, this could be, compassionate, confident, intelligent, well-spoken, like to read, basically anything your child could use to help them in life. Then talk to your child about how they can use those assets in their everyday life.
It may sound complicated for a 5th grader but I promise it’s not, once they understand. Here’s an example, an 11 year old girl is compassionate, kind, and understanding (assets) but not so much confident or outspoken. In this situation we wouldn’t suggest for this girl to join the debate club. Instead, we would steer her towards the welcoming committee that the school offers to new students. Talk about how everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It’s when we realize what our strengths are and then use them to our advantage, we really shine.
How to Talk to Kids About Mental Health Issues (Grades 6-8)
Kids at this age can get the full explanation on mental health issues.
1. Mental Illness
Explain the numerous different mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, etc.) Let them know what the warning signs of mental illness are (behavior & personality changes, sleep problems, emotional outbursts, suicidal thoughts.) Tell them, it is OK to ask for help, it does not make you weak in any way. It’s at this age when kids won’t want to talk to their parents about their issues. This is a huge reason why getting your child a trusted adult early on in life is imperative. This is when you’re going to rely on your trusted adult to be there for your child any time day or night.
The fact is, bullying peaks in middle school, with 25% of students, claiming they were bullied at some point. Talk to your child about the strong correlation between bullying and mental health issues and suicide. Explain to your child, one-third of the time, the victim never even tell an adult about what’s happening to them. It is for this reason that kids cannot be bystanders. If they see some form of bullying happening, it is their responsibility to tell someone, their trusted adult at school or home, a teacher, anyone. Children who have been bullied report a variety of social and emotional problems-anxiety and insecurity can lead to depression and suicidal ideation.
3. Personal Assets & Protective Factors
Explain how personal assets and protective factors promote and support healthy emotional development. Personal Assets are an individuals strengths and weaknesses (such as confidence, compassionate, kindness, well-spoken, positive peer relationships.) Protective Factors are the skills and resources a child has that could help deal with stressful situations (parental involvement, positive interactions at school, trusted adult in the school system.)
Caring family relationships make it less likely a child will turn to an unhealthy coping method such as substance abuse. It increases the chances of your child coming to you for help in times of trouble. Periodically go over your child’s strengths and weaknesses with them as they will change with time.
4. Coping Skills
Go more in depth with your middle schooler about healthy and unhealthy coping skills. Appropriate coping skills for this age group would be having a conversation with your family or trusted adult, journaling, doing something they enjoy such as art or writing, supportive friends, exercising. Some inappropriate coping skills would be overeating, wanting to be alone, anger and rage, substance abuse, and thoughts of death or suicide.
5. Myths about Suicide
There are tons of myths about suicide, I’m going to go over a few but know that there are hundreds that I could tell you.
Myth #1-If adults talk to young people about suicide, it will put the idea in their heads. This is the furthest thing from the truth. If anything, it would help kids to realize that we, as adults, understand what they are feeling. When we validate their feelings and give them a chance to ask questions about mental illness, we will be able to see if they need help.
Myth #2-Most young people who complete suicide showed no warning signs. Actually, there were probably numerous warning signs, but if you aren’t educated on what to look for, you wouldn’t know them. It is for this reason that stronger suicide prevention programs should be in communities and schools.
Myth #3-the biggest of them all-there is no correlation between bullying and suicide. It’s quite obvious that there is a very strong correlation between bullying and suicide. It may not be the direct cause of the suicide but bullying definitely harms children way more deeply than we know. If you suspect you’re child is being bullied, call the school, ask for their help. Inform the school that your child’s moods have changed drastically and you would like someone to keep an eye on them at school.
6. Where to Go For Help
Mental Health America has great screening tools that a young person or the parent of a young person can take. The results will tell you what they suggest to do next.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
Also, talk to your kids about going to an adult, at school, if they hear any friend or classmate talking about attempting suicide. The school should know what to do in the situation.
Although, it seems like talking about suicide and mental illness, to kids, is macabre, it is very necessary. The fact is we talk about scary stuff to our kids all the time. We talk about not talking to strangers, drugs and addiction, smoking, and bullying. Every day a new threat pops up that petrifies us, as parents, cyberbullying and online predators. Talking to your kids about mental health issues and suicide will not only help them, it may help to save another kids life.
If you would like more info on how to talk to kids about mental health issues, I have an upcoming webinar on the subject. Subscribe to be the first to hear about the dates. Also, please share, in case other parents are in need of the information. Thank you