5 tips to help start a conversation about mental health with your child
Beginning a conversation about your child’s mental health can be one of the most impactful — yet intimidating — things you do as a parent. As parents, you want to do everything you can to support your child’s health and well-being but starting a discussion about an emotional and sensitive topic, like mental health, may feel overwhelming.
Why it’s important: Children are facing a mental health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 children have a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder but unfortunately, only 20% of those children receive the care they need.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, children in the U.S. have been struggling — but of course, that was further amplified by the challenges of the last few years,” said Dr. Don Tavakoli, national medical director for behavioral health for UnitedHealthcare. “As parents, it’s crucial that we support our kids with a safe and comfortable space to talk about any concerns they may be feeling.”
Checking in on your child and having a conversation about mental health can help decrease the stigma around these challenges and help create an opportunity for more safe, open and consistent discussions. To help you get started, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
- Choose a good time: Children may be less likely to talk if they feel unsafe, uncomfortable or feel pressured to share. Finding the right time, whether that’s while on a walk, in the car or while you’re cooking dinner together may help the conversation flow naturally — and can feel less intense than cornering them or bringing it up when they are distracted.
- Listen actively: When your child is talking about their feelings, make sure to really listen, avoid interrupting with questions and show that you are paying attention. Stay calm and let them lead the conversation, without commenting unless prompted.
- Validate their feelings: Empathize with what they’re saying and let them know it’s OK to feel the way they do. Avoid judging or dismissing their emotions.
- Emphasize that it’s treatable: Many children may feel shame if they’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression but it’s important to reassure them that it’s common to feel this way at times and there are effective treatments available. Reassure them this isn’t their fault and help emphasize their strengths so they can see their mental health challenges don’t define them. Ask them what they think they need in order to feel better.
- Engage in self-care: Help your child practice self-care, including maintaining a healthy diet, engaging in enjoyable activities, exercising regularly and getting sufficient sleep to help set them up for success. Model this same behavior yourself, as they watch you for guidance.
“Talking about mental health with your children is not just a conversation, it is an investment in their well-being,” said Jennifer Janowski, director of National Clinical Strategy, Child and Adolescent Health, for UnitedHealthcare. “By addressing any issues that may be impacting their mental health, you are not only providing support and guidance, but also helping them develop the skills they need to navigate life’s challenges with resilience and strength.”
One more thing: Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide. It is a difficult conversation to have, but talking to your children about suicide is an important part of addressing their mental health needs. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, there is no connection between having conversations about suicide and increased suicide activity. Asking about suicide may actually provide relief for people of all ages.
To start the conversation, it is important to create a safe and non-judgmental space for children to share their feelings. Let your child know there is help available for therapy or counseling and let them know there are people who care about them and want to help them. Remember, having a conversation about suicide with your child is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing process that requires open communication, trust and support.
If your child is experiencing severe or persistent symptoms, it may be necessary to seek the help of a mental health professional. Encourage your child to speak with a therapist or counselor for help. Consider looking into your health plan to understand the tools and resources you may have, in addition to your coverage options.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org/chat for 24-hour, toll-free, confidential support and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. For TTY users, use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.