June 14, 2024

Care Nex

Stay Healthy, Live Happy

How to Talk to Your Kids About Mental Health, According to an Expert

6 min read

Are you one of those parents who rush from work to pick up your kids, eager to hear all about their day, only to be met with a curt “Good” in response to “How was school today?” It can feel like pulling teeth or at least as uncomfortable as a root canal. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Regular mental health check-ins are crucial because they help children understand and manage their emotions, build resilience, and develop healthy coping strategies. These conversations also strengthen the parent-child relationship, fostering trust and ensuring your kids know they can turn to you in times of need.

Teenage girl sitting on the floor and scrolling a smartphone.

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However, let’s be honest — starting a meaningful conversation about their mental health can be challenging, and it’s easy to feel frustrated or worried about saying the wrong thing. Here are some ideas on how to have a relaxed, effective, and, yes, even enjoyable mental health check-in with your kids.

Set the Scene for Success: Create an environment where your child feels stress-free and open. Avoid hectic times like right after school, late at night, or moments when you are around other people, even if they are siblings or close family members. This needs to be a calm and private setting where they don’t feel the need to have their guard up. Think about places they feel most at ease — maybe during a game of catch, while baking cookies, a walk in the park, or cuddling up on the couch with a movie.

It is NOT an Interrogation: Avoid jumping straight into heavy topics or asking them repeatedly during the day. Start with light, engaging questions and move from general to specific as the conversation flows. You can encourage your child to share more by asking casual, open-ended questions. Instead of questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” ask things like, “What’s something that made you happy today?” or “Can you tell me about something that’s been on your mind?”

Be an Active Listener:  Show you’re all ears by genuinely listening. Put down your phone, make eye contact, and nod along. Kids can tell when you’re genuinely interested.

Validate Their Feelings: As parents, we want to protect our kids from the world, especially if they are hurting. However, it is crucial to avoid interrupting or immediately offering solutions. Sometimes, kids need to be heard and understood to develop their own coping mechanisms and self-confidence.

Acknowledge your child’s emotions, whether happy, sad, or frustrated, without dismissing them. You can validate their feelings with responses like, “It’s normal to feel upset about that,” “I understand why you’d feel this way, or “That sounds really hard.”

Teenage girl sitting on the floor and scrolling a smartphone.

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Keep the Lines of Communication Open: Reassure your child that they can talk to you anytime. Let them know their feelings are important and that you’re there to help them through tough times. You can also follow up on previous conversations to show that you remember and care. For example, you can say: “How have you been feeling since we talked about your friend last week?”

Keep Cool: Remember to stay calm, even if your child drops a bombshell! Displaying anger, shock, or extreme sadness can cause your child to shut down or feel guilty for upsetting you. So, take a deep breath before reacting.

Children learn by example. You are the adult, and you are modeling emotional regulation. Show them how to show their feelings healthily by expressing emotions appropriately. You can even shareyour own experiences with managing stress. This normalizes these feelings and shows them practical ways to cope.

Seek Professional Help if Needed: If your child is struggling and it’s beyond what you can handle at home, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Therapists can provide support and tools to help your child navigate their emotions.

Now, we know well that asking a 5-year-old how they feel will never be as hard (and painfully awkward) as asking your “leave-me-alone-mom” teenager. So, let’s talk about the difference in approaches to a mental health check-in according to the child’s age.

For young children (4-7 years)

You might be surprised how much younger kids can express feelings. During this time, they are exploring emotions and sensations and might still not have the vocabulary to explain what is bothering them entirely. Use simple, straightforward language to ask how they feel. For example, you might say, “Did anything today make you smile, laugh, or cry?”

You can read them a book with stories that resonate with their daily experiences or engage them in activities like playing with toys or drawing. Creativity can help them express themselves in a way that feels natural and fun.

For Tweens (8-12 years)

It might not always seem like it, especially when they are absorbed in their iPads or video games, but tweens still need their parents to guide them when navigating tumultuous times. They put tremendous meaning and value on the attention they receive from you. Normalize feelings and expression of emotions. Everyone sometimes feels sad, angry, or worried, and that’s okay. Show that you are fully present and listening by removing distractions like phones or work. When they see you giving them your full attention, it reinforces that their feelings are important and respected.

For teens (13-18 years)

Respect for their independence is critical when dealing with teenagers. Teens may be more reluctant to open up, so respecting their boundaries is crucial. Acknowledge their need for privacy and express that you are always available to listen. Whatever they share, validate their feelings without immediately offering solutions or judgments. For example: “That sounds really tough. I’m here for you.”

Be careful with sharing with others what they confide in you in private, even if it means not sharing it with other close family members. You might also find that you need to ask permission to help. Before jumping in with advice, ask if they want your help or just need someone to listen. For example: “Do you want to talk about some ways to handle this, or do you just need to vent?”

Talking about mental health with your kids doesn’t have to be a serious, sit-down affair. You create a safe space for them by making the conversation fun and engaging according to their level of maturity and comprehension. Remember, it’s all about letting your child know you’re there for them, no matter what. So, get creative, stay patient, and keep the lines of communication open.

Welcome to Family Reset, a monthly column and must-go destination for all parents seeking guidance (and grasping for some sanity) in the wild adventure of raising children. Behind this compelling and candid read is New York psychotherapist, writer, editor, and “mommyyy” Zuania Capó, (or just call her Z), a compassionate, multicultural, and integrative therapist passionate about supporting families to thrive and connect. Armed with a touch of wisdom, insightful tips, a witty spirit, tons of honesty, and a sprinkle of humor, she is here to help you navigate the complexities of parenthood while prioritizing your well-being.

Family Reset is not just a source of advice; it’s a vibrant community where parents can find inspiration, share their stories, and realize they are not alone in the exhilarating roller coaster ride of parenting. Have questions? Want answers? Get ready to hit that reset button and connect with Z at [email protected].

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