How To Talk To Your Child About Mental Health, From Moms Who've Been There

Parenthood is nothing if not a slew of challenges, and as your children grow older those challenges will undoubtably include some serious conversations. Discussing mental health is one of those discussions, and the need to talk to our kids about their mental wellbeing is arguably more important than ever before. Knowing how to talk to your child about mental health isn't innate, though, which is why Romper asked moms who've already had this discussion to share their tips and tricks with the rest of us.

I’ve spent most of my life struggling with anxiety, and after two traumatic birth experiences and the loss of my daughter I’ve also battled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. I’d love to say that once I had my son I was able to put all my issues behind me and just focus on him, but that's not how mental health works. So my son has seen me on good days — which, thankfully, are most days — and he’s seen me on bad days. He knows that there are times when mom will be sad, or won't necessarily have the energy to take him to the park or read him a bedtime story.

So while my son isn't old enough to know or understand the technical words or definitions for certain mental health issues, he does understand that sometimes people struggle with their feelings and what’s going on in their minds. He knows that some people need medicine and someone to talk to in order to feel better. Our discussions about mental health have always remained age-appropriate, so as he gets older I will better describe this issues with him so he, too, can put a name to a feeling.

Every parent, and every child, is different and, as a result, may need a different approach to these types of discussions. So with that in mind, here's how the following moms explained mental health to their children:

Emily, 40

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I’ve talked to my daughter a lot about anxiety — we talk about how her ‘worry brain’ sometimes says things that aren’t true (like ‘I’m never going to get to sleep’). I remind her to focus on things that are real and true, and that are happening now (not in the past or the future). I’ve also told her that there are doctors and medicines that can help people who have a hard time with their thoughts and feelings, just like there are doctors and medicines to help with when our body is hurt or sick.”

Marissa, 41

“I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It started as postpartum OCD, I let it go a while without treatment, and now I am stuck with it. It is controlled, but rears its head every so often and my kids have seen it. I am honest. I have told them that mommy's brain sometimes get stuck thinking about the same thing over and over, and even though I want to stop thinking about it trying to stop makes it worse. My daughter is 7 and asks questions and I answer them as honestly and age appropriately as I know how to. She understands that mommy has to avoid certain news stories and conversation subjects. She knows these are called OCD triggers. My son is 4, and I will tell him the same things I have told my daughter when he is her age.”

Christina, 42

“We live in area with a lot of visible homelessness and addiction, so we often discuss how mental health issues —misdiagnoses, or untreated issues, or in combination with other challenging life circumstances (i.e. poverty, abuse growing up, abusive relationships, etc.) — may have led people to the situation they're in. It's mostly been an effort to make sure my children ‘see’ individuals on the street as people, as human beings, and not invisible or easy to discard or ignore.

The side effect is that we've had lots of conversations about how mental health issues run the spectrum from mild to extremely disruptive or even life-threatening, and how that line is affected by other circumstances (for example, noting that a close family member's OCD/anxiety hasn't stopped them from having a productive career and family life in part because of supportive family, good health care, etc. but that not everyone has the same circumstances).”

Nadene, 42

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“I’m a psychologist, so from a young age I’ve talked to my kids about helping people with their feelings and thoughts, and things we need to do to help our thoughts and feelings stay healthy.”

Anonymous, 41

“Years ago I was diagnosed with panic disorder. After a lot of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, it is mostly treated. But, from time to time, I have anxious moments. I have decided not to share this with my kids (ages 7 and 4), because this type of anxiety is considered to be a learned behavior and not (yet) proven genetic. I don't want them picking up the tendencies from me so for now (since it is infrequent) I keep it to myself and plan to tell them when they are older. I have told them about mental health in regard to other people's behavior, and have explained that sometimes certain people's brains operate differently. I just don't talk about it in relation to myself.”

Shana, 35

“I was listening to the song ‘You Will Be Found’ from Dear Evan Hansen on repeat and it started a conversation with my 5-year-old. Still a long way to go, but it's a start.”

Julia, 34

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“I was forced into [the conversation] when my brother moved in. My son was 5, turning 6, and my brother's behaviors were so out of character and downright abusive towards my child and me. Thankfully I worked with therapists (and my mom is a therapist), so I had the adult language and worked with my colleagues to make it 5-year-old friendly.”

Shannon, 35

“We haven't talked about mental health specifically, but we've worked a lot on emotional intelligence because my older son (5) is an intense kid. He gets wound up and melts down easily. We have the poster from Generation Mindful, which helps him identify feelings and choose activities to shift his attitude.”

Jamie, 35

“My husband once told me that he can look back and recognize his own depression from his earliest childhood memories. Mental illness runs strong in his family, so we knew even before we had children that we wanted to give them the language to be able to talk about how they were feeling so that we could validate those experiences, help them through their challenges, and recognize early signs of depression and anxiety as soon as possible. So, really, it started by giving them the tools to understand their own mental health which, in turn, enables them to better understand challenges others may face.”