Growing up in the 70’s, we never spoke about depression or anxiety. In my 20’s and 30’s, I am pretty sure I never uttered the words mental health or mental illness. It wasn’t until Ben was diagnosed with autism, anxiety, a mood disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome that I found myself tongue tied when talking about this foreign world.
I wish life was “typical” for Ben; however, I am grateful our family now has the words and confidence to talk about mental health and mental illness. We have worked hard at home to create an environment in which we are aware of our thoughts and feelings and know when to ask for help.
As parents, it is our job to help our kids find the words to talk about their mental health just like they would for a sore throat or stomach ache.
Talking to Your Child
Mental health affects the way we think and feel about ourselves and others, and how we respond to daily life.
Keep the conversation simple and matter of fact. Ask questions so the kids guide the conversation. Use age appropriate examples to help kids understand. For example, comparing Eeyore (low energy, pessimistic, depressed) and Tigger (impulsive, hyperactive, excited about life).
“Ben, I noticed you are talking a lot about what happened on the playground last spring. It feels like your brain might be getting stuck. What do you think is going on in that noggin of yours?”
“Jack, I noticed that you are getting really frustrated with your brother, more so than usual. What is different lately? Let’s come up with some things you can do to feel less frustrated and angry.”
“Hey, did you know that 1 in 4 people suffer from being really nervous or sad? That’s why we talk about these types of feeling so that we know when to ask for help.”
Talking with Siblings
It is important for Jack to understand that most of his brother’s behavior stems from an illness.
“Your brother is learning to live with anxiety and a mood disorder. Both are illness’s of the brain. We all feel sad, excited, angry, and nervous. Ben’s brain sometimes mixes up these feelings or forgets to put on the brakes. When Ben gets angry, he REALLY gets angry and needs more time to calm down.”
Jack struggles with his brothers highs and lows. Jack doesn’t want to hear anything about an illness and lack of impulse control after Ben dismantled his favorite Lego set. I am trying to get better at providing Jack the space to express how he feels, to listen, and to show empathy.
“Jack, I know that Lego set was really important to you and I don’t blame you for being angry at Ben. Do you want to talk about it?”
It has been hard on Jack to respond to kids when they ask why is your brother screaming or throwing things. Being both embarrassed and protective of his older brother, Jack would respond with “just because” or “it is none of your business.”
We practice how to respond to questions from friends and other kids.
“Jack, let’s practice what you can say when your friends ask about your brother’s behavior.”
Talking about Your Own Emotions and Feelings
My husband and I talk to the kids about our thoughts and feelings. The boys know that I recently asked my doctor for help when I was feeling really sad and having a hard time getting through the day.
Trust me, we don’t harp on our feelings and dissect every thought. We do talk about the importance of taking care of your whole body … physical and emotional well-being.
Most importantly, we try to model what we hope will become second nature for our kids.
Kids Advocating for Themselves
Jack, my 11 year old “neurotypical” child, recently experienced his first stay at a psychiatric hospital. After being discharged, we were cuddling in bed and I suggested we chat about how to talk about the hospitalization with his friends. Without missing a beat, Jack said I am just going to tell them that I needed help with feeling anxious and getting frustrated all the time. Okey dokey … he’s got it covered!
Ben, my 13 year old, recently came to me and said the thoughts in his head were starting to take over and he asked for help before it ruins the holidays (always a difficult season). He actively participated in the conversation with his school team and parents to determine next steps. We agreed to a short term hospitalization. Ben was ready and relieved!