How to Talk to Kids About Mental Health - An F&H Cares Article
As part of Fabrics & Home, F&H Cares initiative, this month we offer tips on jumpstarting conversations about mental health, featuring the 2022 recipient of our annual donation, The Youth Mental Health Project.
One in five children have a mental disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with just 20% of them receiving care for it. "Anxiety, stress and suicidal ideation is increasing among children, teens and young adults," said Valerie Barton, executive director of The Youth Mental Health Project. “Academic, work and social pressures are compounded by worries about the broader economic and political climate in which they are coming of age."
Students are facing a mental health crisis that impacts their education, safety and future, agreed to Dr. Shairi Turner, chief health officer at Crisis Text Line, and the pandemic only compounded the everyday stressors that children and their caregivers experience. “We are all trying to stabilize ourselves,” said Turner. Plus, social media amplifies our fears, showing a running commentary of unsettling images. “From an evolutionary perspective, our minds retain the negative to keep us safe from harm,” she added. “Fast forward to now and the negative messaging is everywhere. We have to be intentional about balancing and pointing out the good and positive in the world.”
Photo credit: CottonBro/Pexels
Beginning those difficult talks
For a parent, starting conversations with their children about mental health issues is not the easiest topic to broach. So, what is the best way to begin this discussion, and circumvent the usual "leave me alone" or "nothing is the matter" responses? There’s not one method, according to Turner, but parents should ensure that the discussions are age appropriate and are introduced in a calm manner. “Younger children can understand, label and identify moods (angry, sad, confused),” she said. “The discussion can be tied to the annual school physical exam, helping children to normalize a ‘mental health check-up’ along with a physical checkup.”
She recommended looking for opportunities when your child wants to talk. “These are sometimes ‘drop everything and listen’ moments,” she advised. “It means putting down the phone and being an active listener and co-problem solver.” During such discussions sharing your own feelings about a challenging situation “can open a space of vulnerability that welcomes the child to share,” she added. So can reflecting back on a distressing time period and revisiting the situation by identifying the triggering event and the feelings associated with that moment. Parents can use language, such as, “Remember when XYZ happened … how did that make you feel? How long did that feeling last? Has that feeling happened before?”
Often a parent can start a conversation by acknowledging that they “see” their child, offering words like: “I can tell that you don’t seem like yourself, enjoy your activities, etc., do you want to share what is on your mind?” Don’t be deterred if your child doesn’t respond immediately. Even if that one discussion doesn’t result in the conversation you hoped for, the next effort might generate more talk. Just keep trying.
Conversation Tip Sheet:
- Look for opportunities to listen and engage. These won’t always happen during “convenient” times, but do capitalize on moments your child is open to sharing.
- Try to know what you want to achieve before engaging in a talk — do you want your child to open up more? Are you looking to determine if your child needs help, and how they feel about that possibility?
- Be present and listen. It’s all right if you don’t have all the answers, listening and showing that you are there is powerful.
- Ask open-ended and non-judgmental questions. Reflect on what you are hearing so your child knows that you are listening.
- Validate and value the child’s feelings no matter their age or perspective.
- Use brainstorming and collaboration during the conversation. Get your child’s opinion on what might help the situation — and if there is a way to resolve the issue.
- Ask difficult questions about whether their child or teen is thinking of death/dying/self-harm. If someone says they want to hurt themselves, take their words seriously and get immediate help, even if that entails an ER visit.
Photo caption: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
Sometimes a therapist can help
When conversations at home aren’t enough, a therapist might help, especially if the child has experienced trauma. “If a child or teen seems to be struggling at any point, a parent does not have to wait for an overt crisis to seek help and get ahead of it,” suggested Turner.
While counseling resources are sometimes limited, consider things like virtual /tele-mental health options. You can ask your pediatrician and school guidance counselors for recommendations on local mental health providers. “Parents should look for a therapist that connects with their child/ teen,” advised Turner. “This means that you may need to explore several options. If the child does not feel like they can connect and share with the therapist then it is harder to make progress. Get feedback from your child after the first two or three visits to determine if the relationship is working.”
Keep in mind that group or individual therapy are both valuable. “Deeper and more individualized work can happen in the one-on-one setting but the group setting can often help the child to realize that their situation is not unique and that their peers are struggling as well,” said Turner. “This can help normalize the experiences for some children." Some children, however, might feel uncomfortable sharing intimate feelings with strangers. See what works best for your child.
Photo credit: Dustin Belt/Unsplash
Sign up to get more information from YMH Project’s “Understanding Your Mental Health” at https://ymhproject.org/understanding-youth-mental-health/ or check out the organization’s resources.
Crisis Text Line is a nonprofit organization that provides free 24/7, high-quality text-based mental health support and crisis intervention in English and in Spanish. Parents, teachers and teens can also use the organization’s Mental Health School Supplies Toolkit, which offers free grounding and breathing videos and all sorts of tips and resources.
998 Suicide and Crisis Hotline
F&H Cares is the charitable arm of Fabrics & Home. Since 2019, the company has supported children with disabilities by donating 25 cents per yard for each yard of fabric sold from the products purchased on its website. Each year, Fabrics and Home randomly chooses one of 13 disabilities from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In honor of this year's recipient, The Youth Mental Health Project, we wanted to highlight some of their important work through this awareness piece.
Featured photo: Dan Meyers/Unsplash
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