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How to talk to young kids about mental health

Experts explain why it's important to discuss mental health with kids — and how parents can best broach the conversation. (Photo: Getty)
Experts explain why it's important to discuss mental health with kids — and how parents can best broach the conversation. (Photo: Getty)

There has been a lot of attention on the toll the pandemic has taken on the mental health of children, and it's turned a new focus on how young people deal with mental health issues.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents to be aware of signs their child may be struggling with mental health, noting online that there has been an increase in mental health emergencies among kids since the start of the pandemic. But, it seems, mental health has been a growing issue for children since before the pandemic began. One study conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration found that, between 2016 and 2020, the number of children aged 3 to 17 years who were diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29%. Depression diagnoses in children in the same age group also jumped up — by 27%.

Of course, children also see the mental health struggles of others, and they will likely have questions after witnessing a person behaving erratically in public or seeing a family member act in a way that's unusual for them.

If you have children, it's understandable to be concerned and maybe even unsure of when to start talking to your child about mental health. But experts stress that it's important to start the conversation early — and keep it going.

When should you talk to young children about mental health?

Mental health counselors and doctors agree that it's important to have conversations with young children about mental health, even if you don't use those exact words. "It is a great idea to start normalizing talking about emotions well before you use the words 'mental health' with your children," Brittany Barber Garcia, chief of pediatric psychology at Michigan's Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life.

She recommends helping to name your child's emotions for them, like saying, "I see you crying, you look upset" or even talking about your own emotions by saying something like, “It makes me so happy when you are kind to your sister” or “I am feeling angry right now, so I need to take a minute to calm down before I respond." This "is an important foundation for future discussions about mental health," Garcia says.

However, it's important to match your conversation with your child's age, Dr. Wanjiku F.M. Njoroge, medical director of the Young Child Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Life. "But beginning to ask them about their feelings — happy, sad, mad — or their worries and concerns can begin when they are very little."

By starting the conversation about emotions early, you help children learn to better identify how they're feeling and even learn to cope better, Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women's Emotional Wellness in Pennsylvania, tells Yahoo Life. "As children get older, you can build on this framework and help them further understand the purpose of the primary emotions and how their thoughts and behaviors may influence how they feel," she says.

Why are these conversations important to have?

Having conversations with your children about mental health and continuing to have them helps them understand their own emotions, as well as those of others, Lauren K. Ayr-Volta, a psychologist and neuropsychologist at Connecticut Children's, tells Yahoo Life. "This is also an opportunity to help children develop empathy," she says. "If children can appreciate their own feelings and those of their peers, it can reduce conflict and provide opportunities for creative problem solving."

Another thing to keep in mind, per Ayr-Volta: If your child starts to have symptoms that could be a sign of a mental health disorder "they will have the language to be able to tell their parents how they feel."

It's easy to label emotions as "good" and "bad," but having conversations around mental health "can show your children that all emotions are good — it’s how we act on the emotions that makes the difference," Stephanie Strumberger, a licensed clinical counselor at Northwestern Medicine Woodstock Hospital in Illinois, tells Yahoo Life.

At the same time, she says it's crucial to teach children that everyone is different. "Some people struggle with health issues. Some people have diabetes, some people have anxiety, some people have depression and others have food allergies," Strumberger says. "It doesn’t change the commonality that we are all human beings, and we don’t need to be afraid to talk about these topics openly in front of our children."

Beyond their own mental health state, kids may have questions about how others are displaying signs of anxiety or depression. (Photo: Getty)
Beyond their own mental health state, kids may have questions about how others are displaying signs of anxiety or depression. (Photo: Getty)

How to address the mental health issues of others

It's important to note that mental health is a complicated area, and you never know what someone else may or may not be going through. But if your child sees someone in obvious mental distress in public, they will likely have questions. "It's important to be honest with them, while also appreciating their developmental level," Ayr-Volta says. "Children are curious about the world and will ask questions. When parents provide the opportunities to talk about what they see, it can help children remain calm."

While you may not know why someone is behaving a certain way in public, you can talk to your child about how it feels to see certain behaviors as well as how to manage themselves in that moment, she says. Garcia agrees. "If you observe someone struggling with severe mental illness, it is okay to label it that way for your child in a non-stigmatizing way," she says. She recommends avoiding language such as, "that person seems crazy, stay away." A better response might be, "I know you can see that person is talking to themselves and not making sense. They might have a severe mental illness, or maybe something else going on. Since we don’t really know, let’s not make assumptions.”

How to approach your child's own mental health struggles

If you suspect that your child is struggling with a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, Ayr-Volta says it's important to talk to them about it. "These conversations are best in a quiet space, where you can have some uninterrupted time to talk," she says, adding that "the most important thing to remember is to just listen."

If you're unsure of where to start, Garcia recommends talking about what you've noticed (they've been crying more, don't want to go out and play as much, etc.) and flag that it's different from their usual behavior. Then say, "Let’s talk about what’s going on.”

Sometimes children will open up in a first conversation, and others may need "several short opportunities" before they're ready to discuss their feelings, Ayr-Volta says. "Children may already have some ideas of ways they can cope or supports they need in certain situations," she notes. "Parents can also offer strategies that they have used or have worked for another friend or family member."

But if talking about their feelings isn't helping, their struggles or worries are starting to impact them significantly and you're concerned, Ammon recommends contacting their pediatrician. Njoroge agrees.

"Primary care providers are terrific at helping families to identify the exact mental health challenge a child may be facing and then helping children and families access appropriate mental health services," she says. "We know that early identification and intervention is critically important in ensuring children receive appropriate and timely care."

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