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How to talk with children about your mental health issues

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This is a guest blog by Liel K. Bridgford.


Deciding whether or not to talk with children about your mental health issues is a personal choice. We all want the best for our children, and you might worry about the impact this conversation could have on your child. You might also be concerned about other things, like whether your child will tell others about your experience.


The truth is, being real about mental health issues and showing your children a range of emotions can have benefits for both you and your child.


Benefits of talking with children about your mental health


  • Any secret takes energy and effort. Talking with your child about what’s going on allows you to tell the truth when they ask questions about your mood. This saves you the energy of masking all experiences related to your mental health issues around your children.


  • Role modeling and practice are two main ways children learn. By having a conversation about your mental health, you are modelling the skill of talking about feelings and mental health with your child. This gives them valuable gifts of communication, vocabulary, and empathy around mental health.


  • Children constantly try to make sense of their world and the people around them, including parents’ and caregivers’ behaviour. By talking to them about mental health issues, you are making it less likely they will blame themselves during tough moments.


  • You may find it easier to cope during tough days if you’ve had a conversation about mental health issues. For example, you could refer back to the conversation with: “Remember we talked about me sometimes feeling low? Well, today is one of those low days. It’s not your fault and I’ll get through it by…” (Add a strategy you use like listening to music, connecting with family, etc.)


In short, being honest and open with children allows them to learn about themselves and about real-life relationships with others. Learning how to name feelings and how to talk about feeling not ok are key tools they will use as they grow up.


How to start?


If you decide to talk about mental health issues with your children, it can be hard to know how to start the conversation. Here are a few tips you may find helpful:


1. Consider where and when you’re going to bring up the conversation. Choosing a relatively stress-free time in a quiet place can help you both feel at ease and engaged in the conversation.


2. Think about your individual child and their needs and wishes. No two children are the same, so think over the questions or comments your child has already brought up.


3. Think about topics you wish to talk about, or even write these down. You may want to consider the following messages that can be supportive to a child: 1) Your child is not responsible for you having a mental health issue or how you manage it, and 2) You are working on your mental health and doing your best, but may still have bad days (and these are usually temporary).


4. Use age-appropriate language. With younger children you can use words like sad, upset, angry, and worried. Introducing a wide range of words that describe feelings is helpful for you both. As your child gets older, introduce words like anxious, overwhelmed, low, depressed, on edge, frustrated etc.


5. Remember it is a conversation with your child, not to them. It’s important to allow them time to process, ask questions and go back to the topic at another time.


6. Address any questions they may have, without feeling pressure to know everything. If a child surprises you with a question, you can say, “I’m not sure yet how to explain this, but I’ll think about it and let’s talk again tomorrow.”


7. Make it interactive: if you feel up for it, doing a small activity with your child can help them understand better. For example, you could borrow a library book about emotions and read it together. Or, you could draw facial expressions of different feelings. Even pointing out characters on the screen who are feeling sad, scared, or worried can be useful.


8. Connecting with others who experience similar things to you can help build a sense of connection, pride, and confidence in talking with your children. You can find people through blogs, social media, or local support groups, for instance.


While this conversation often reduces negative emotions for children, for some it might be worrying or distressing. Sometimes a mental health professional who works with children can be an extra support to families.


They can help your child understand mental health issues and relationships more over time, help them cope with anxiety or distress, and give you tips on supporting your child with age-appropriate strategies. A local or trusted GP is a good place to start to get a referral to a psychologist, counsellor, or social worker.


Where to from here?

Starting the conversation can be hard, but children are quick learners and you may be surprised at how they respond. For further advice you can go to the Children of Parents with a Mental Illness website or call your state-specific parentline. And remember, this is an ongoing conversation, not a once off!


For extra support the following services can help:

  • SANE Helpline - 1800 187 263
  • Lifeline - 13 11 14

Finally, you can join the discussion in our Lived Experience Forum! Ask questions and share your experiences in a safe and anonymous online space. Peer support workers and counsellors are in the background to help if needed.


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