Mental illness is not only something that adults deal with. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 17% of children ages 6 to 17 years old experience a mental health disorder.  Plus, since one in five adults in the US experience mental illness each year there’s a high likelihood that children will come into contact with mental illness through interacting with an adult in their lives. As your children grow older, they may or may not be diagnosed mental illness, but it is inevitable they will come in contact with people who suffer from it.
It can be a lot of fun teaching your kids about life and all the positive things in the world, but when it comes to discussing dark realities it can become difficult to navigate. Let’s look a little deeper into statistics involving children and mental illness.
The CDC estimates that for children aged 3 to 17 years, 4.5 million children have a diagnosed behavior problem, 4.4 million children have diagnosed anxiety, and 1.9 million children have diagnosed depression. 
Opening up a discussion with your kids about mental illness can prove to be really valuable in the long run. Your kids need to know they can come to you if they are not feeling right or if they feel different than their peers. The last thing a parent would want is for their kids to ‘just deal’ with their mental illness on their own.
Kids, naturally, are loaded with questions. Broaching this topic with them is guaranteed to produce a wide array of inquiries. Of course you never know what your child will ask so you may have to improvise some. If you don’t know the answer to something, however, simply tell them you aren’t sure then go research the answer! There are some terrific mental health resources available online, and you can also talk to a therapist or mindcare provider for suggestions.
Remember, this is just introducing your kids to the reality of mental illness and what it can do to somebody. You don’t have to have a ton of specific examples or be too in-depth. Keeping it surface level and stating the basics is the best way to go at first. After that initial conversation, you can navigate where to take it the next time you talk about it with them.
Using Personal Experience
Many parents actually have mental illness themselves and have been living with it for a long time. Or you may know another adult who copes with a mindcare condition. When talking to kids, you can use these aspects of personal lived experience and the invaluable lessons that it offers.
For parents who are coping with their own mental illness, MindPath provider Maureen Gomeringer, MSW, LCSW offers steps and considerations that parents with mental illness should take when explaining their condition to their kids.  It is vital to explain to your children that there are days where mom or dad may not be acting “normally” but that it has nothing to do with them. Maureen says it’s important to “state the facts.” As an example, she offers the following hypothetical conversation:
Mommy gets irritable and easily frustrated sometimes. When that happens, mommy sometimes yells more and is less patient—like when I yelled at you and said that you didn’t care about anything and you were disrespectful for dropping your drink on the carpet. I am sorry that I yelled, and that I said you didn’t care about anything. I know that you care a lot and that you were trying to be careful. I know that it was an accident. And accidents happen. I do not believe you were being disrespectful. Sometimes mommy says angry things, and that is not okay. I am sorry. I will work on using my words to say how I feel instead of saying angry things.”
Just as you are showing that this is a real problem, it’s also important early on to inform your kids that there are solutions and that plenty of successful people deal with mental illness and still thrive in the real world.
Planting The Seed
As you start to talk to your kids about something serious like this or even something like drug addiction, you are simply opening up the avenue to start having an open discussion about it, basically for the rest of your lives.  Remember these keys when beginning your talk:
- Talk at an appropriate level so that your child can actually process the information and understand what you are saying. Make it as simple and basic as you can.
- Watch out for reactions from them. Body language should let you know how the conversation is going and where you should take it to.
- Keep it simple and straightforward.
- Gauge your child’s mood before engaging in the conversation, you obviously want to have the talk at an appropriate time when they seem to be having a good day.
- As Ms. Gomeringer points out, it is important that we teach children how to care for their mental health with the same diligence that we teach them how healthy habits for physical health.
She offers that during early toddlerhood, “when parents are teaching their children about animals and sounds and parts of the body,” they can introduce “feeling” words as well. “Reflecting to children what their feelings are and pairing the feelings with the action, item or person they are responding to is the foundation of good mental health.”
We all want our kids to never feel pain in their life and view the world as an amazing place, because it is! However, they need to be aware that life is not always going to be pleasant, and they need to know about the negative realities in the world. As their parents or guardians, you have the unique opportunity to help them understand these difficult realities in compassionate ways that can set them up to then be more compassionate towards themselves as they encounter their own difficulties.
Once you have planted the seed of knowledge into their minds, organically navigate through the conversations as you see your child grow and understand more. Reassure your children that they can always be transparent with you and tell you absolutely anything no matter how afraid they are to tell you.
We want to become a world where mental health can be talked about openly without any shame, teaching our younger generations is how we see that become a reality.
Daniel Wittler is a writer in recovery from New Jersey who writes for sites like Stodzy Internet Marketing along with many other sites. Daniel believes absolutely anyone can get sober provided they are ready to take action.
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