Isn’t it funny that when we become a parent or a guardian we quickly forget what it’s like to be a kid? We become bogged down with parental responsibilities and take on our respective roles as super mom or super dad, anchored in strength and ready to fight any battle that comes our way. BUT, when it’s time to speak to our children about their mental health, this is an opportunity to loosen the grip, remove our armor, reveal emotion and come down to their level. Regardless of what we tell ourselves, they understand more than we think they do.
When you detect that something may be bothering your child, or they have gone through a difficult experience at home or at school, it’s important to begin a dialogue. You may also want to check in if you notice shifts in mood or behavior. The following tips from MentalHealth.gov can help get a conversation started with your child about their mental health. (For additional tips and the full article, check out http://www.mentalhealth.gov/talk/parents-caregivers/.)
When having these conversations, practice the following:
- Communicate in a straightforward and clear manner. Especially with teens, be brief and hand the conversation back over to them.
- Speak at a level that is appropriate to their age and development level (e.g., preschool children need far fewer details than teenagers).
- Discuss the topic when your child feels safe and comfortable. For teens, you may want to ask when/where would be a good time to talk so that they can take some ownership and feel in control.
- Watch for reactions during the discussion and slow down (or back up) if your child becomes confused or looks upset.
- Listen openly and let your child tell you about his or her feelings and worries. Especially with teens, try not to interrupt their flow. Short expressions of listening “Mmmhmm…” and “I see…” can signal that you are listening and engaged without derailing the conversation.
Try leading with the following questions and listen actively to your child’s responses:
- Can you tell me more about what is happening? How are you feeling?
- Have you had feelings like this in the past?
- Sometimes it helps to talk to an adult about your feelings. I’m here to listen. How can I help you feel better?
- Do you feel like you want to talk to someone else about what’s going on?