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How to initiate the 'Mental Health Talk' with children?

We all have been meaning well to start the mental health conversation with our little bubs but many of us find ourselves struggling.

The most common fear parents have is that talking to children about mental health can distort their perception of the world. We fear overexposing them to all things ‘adult’ too soon. Although that’s a myth and mental health problems are as common in children as they are in adults, it’s important we set the right tone when talking about mental health.

Here are 5 quick tips to get the conversation started on the right foot:

1) Bring it up:

It may feel uncomfortable bringing up the topic for the fear of children being overwhelmed. To make it seem more natural, try to find a conversation starter from everyday life. A movie/series that features a character with mental health challenges or a celebrity who has recently had a negative experience could make for a good starting point. If your child has witnessed an incident with a family member who has a mental health condition, this can also be used to delve into the issue. Expect to find yourself having this conversation even earlier if you find your children or their friends using derogatory terms like “crazy”. In any case, always start by asking them how they feel about the situation at hand and let the conversation flow from there.

2) Find the right words:

Using age appropriate language is extremely important when discussing this topic with your child. You have to use your words extremely carefully - even a simple change in tone can have a massive impact. The words, the tone and the attitude while you speak will set their attitude towards mental health for the rest of their life.

3) Tailor it to their age:

There is no age too young to start the conversation, but of course, how you talk to your 13 year old will be different than how you talk to a toddler. Begin by telling them that mental health is just like physical health and mental health problems are natural. Explain that mental illnesses are not abnormalities but ailments that are as real as physical problems. E.g.- When talking about depression you can explain how everyone feels sad at times but when that sadness starts interfering with daily life it needs to be treated.

4) Listen, don’t diagnose:

Once your child is comfortable talking about mental health, they will open up to you when they face mental struggles. First, listen. Avoid the urge to label what your child is feeling or to advance an opinion about what they should do. This will make them less likely to share their feelings in the future. Try not reacting too strongly to what they say. The best thing you can do is get a full understanding of how your child is feeling. Then determine appropriate next steps in consultation with a healthcare provider if required. At all costs, do not judge.

5) Share your own mental health journey:

You may personally not have had a diagnosed mental illness but everyone has dealt with feelings of anxiety, sadness and confusion at some point. Visit those instances with your children again. Reflect on how you had reacted and how you could’ve done better. Nothing better than one’s own parents’ experiences to relate to.

Whichever part of the journey you currently are in with your kids, I hope you strike the right balance. Breathe, relax and believe in yourself. Have a happy weekend ahead!

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