According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in every 5 adults in the US suffers from mental illness. And those who don’t suffer personally, likely know someone who does. This means that, inevitably, your kids will at some point encounter a mental illness, be it a personal battle or one they support a friend or family member through. 

As much as we want to shelter our children from the harsh reality of life, it’s more beneficial to have constructive, honest conversations with them about mental health, mental illness, and other mental as well as emotional battles. 

Having The First Talk: Consider Their Age and Take It Slow

We want our kids to know just how incredible and beautiful the world can be. But it’s just as important to talk to them about the reality of mental illness and other challenges they might encounter in life. In talking with your kids about mental illness for the first time, consider their age and remember the following keys:

  • Keep it simple and surface level.
  • Talk at an appropriate level so that your child can understand and process the information that you are divulging to them.
  • Gage their mood before starting the conversation; be sure they are in good spirits. 
  • Be sensitive to your child’s response. Their body language can help indicate where to go with this conversation and when to end it.

Now, based on your child’s age group, you might keep the conversation short and sweet; or, you might delve deeper, especially if your child has questions. Consider their age and then consult the corresponding tips:

  1. Preschool Age: This is an age where you should use major discretion about what you say to your toddler. Images work well if you want to tell/show your child about people being sad or angry sometimes. It must be very rudimentary. If you want to wait for an older age to discuss mental health, that is completely acceptable.
  2. Elementary School Age: In this age group, children are completely loaded with questions, so expect plenty when bringing up mental health (or any topic for that matter). Fortunately, kids this young usually have very straightforward questions without getting to be too complicated. This is a fantastic age to talk to kids about the importance of mental and emotional wellbeing. Kids can begin to show concern for others when they notice someone is angry or upset, and having you to turn to during their own instances of mental or emotional struggles is important.
  3. Teenagers: We all know what it’s like to be a teenager. It’s a time when you are growing rapidly and life is becoming bigger day by day. It is essential for your teens to have an open line of communication with you. It’s a time when you can get more in-depth and real with them about the reality of mental illness. The talks can become raw and emotional depending on what they are dealing with personally. They might also ask to talk to you about a friend or classmate who appears to be struggling with a mental illness.

Relating With Personal Experience: Be a Role Model 

Many of us have dealt with our own mental struggles. If you are someone who has experienced depression, anxiety, significant stress, or another mental challenge, it might help to mention your own experience(s). 

Make it very clear to them that they can ask questions about your own battle. Again, this is where it’s vital to toe the line of teaching without going overboard. Educating your children about your own difficulties in life is a beautiful lesson, so long as you do not overwhelm them or talk to them about it before they’re ready. You’ll want to keep the details of your struggles to yourself until they reach an appropriate age. Here are some guidelines for continuing to teach your kids about mental and emotional health, after you’ve shared details of your own struggle:

  1. Explain that your struggles are not their fault: Kids are extremely sensitive, especially when seeing a parent struggling. Assure them that your sadness, your anger, or your stress has nothing to do with them.
  2. Acknowledge if you overreacted or are unkind: You might overreact or respond regrettably to something your kids do. It’s simple: acknowledge that you reacted and apologize.
  3. Remind your kids that you love them: This may be stating the obvious, but reiterating to your kids how much you love them can be essential when your mental and emotional roadblocks get in the way.  

We want the world to become a place where mental health and mental illness are openly discussed. Teaching our younger generations is the best way to begin building that world.  

* Daniel is a writer in recovery as well as an advocate for mental health awareness. He has been sober nearly 5 years and battled depression for half of his life.