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Explaining Mental Illness to Kids and Teens

Mental illness is an important, yet often a difficult discussion to tackle with children. Since mental health is an essential component of children’s overall health, today’s post seeks to explore ways to talk with children about mental illness in order to boost their understanding and awareness, an imperative step at increasing empathy, acceptance and support of those dealing with mental illness in childhood through adulthood. This post will be covering ways for you to explain mental illness to kids and teens.

mom talking to child about mental illness

Common reasons and challenges include but are not limited to:

  • Stigma - there are often myths, confusion, and misconceptions associated with mental illness from society, environment, and family.

  • Language - parents and caregivers may not know how or need support in how to describe or explain mental illness in an age appropriate manner to children.

  • Abstract concepts - oftentimes the idea of mental health is intangible, therefore, difficult for younger children to grasp or comprehend.

  • Worry - parents and caregivers may be concerned that children will worry and become overly fearful of mental illness.

Things to consider when having this conversation:

  • Parents and caregivers should first find out what the child already know and what their concern might be, if any.

  • Utilize age-appropriate language, through concrete and simple words and concepts. Use analogies and familiar comparisons to help them understand something abstract.

  • Communicate in an honest and straightforward manner.

  • Conduct the discussion when your child is calm and engaged, and pay attention to your child’s reaction when sharing information.

 

Explaining mental illness in a developmentally appropriate way at each developmental level:

Toddlers/Preschool

Example: “Just like our bodies can get sick, sometimes our brains can also get sick. When this happens, you might see a person feel sad, angry, and worried for a very long time. The person might also stay in bed a lot and not do things that they usually like to do. This is not your fault and there are people who can help the person. ”


Young children are learning more language and deepening their understanding of the world and their experiences. Children this age may focus on things that they see and how it affects them. Preschoolers may have questions about someone who looks different or acts different, or someone who is visibly angry and upset. Talk about different emotions, and teach children to recognize them in themselves and in others. Explain that people experience different emotions, and some emotions are difficult and it is okay to talk about them. Children this age may think it is their fault and need reassurance that it is not their fault.


School Age

Example: “An example of a physical illnesses is cancer and an example of a mental illness is depression. Mental illness is a health condition that affects a person's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. People’s brains can get sick just like people’s bodies get sick, and when this happens, the person may feel sad, angry, and worried all the time. Sometimes, their brains can make them see or hear things that aren’t real. It’s not your fault and it is not their fault. You may hear about the person getting help from a doctor called a psychologist or psychiatrist.”

Schooler age kids may want more specifics and be able to process more information. This group may also be concerned about how it will impact them and their daily routine. Another common concern is about the safety of the person or the safety of those who they know. Communicate the plan and build check-ins for further questions or concerns.


Teenagers

Example: “Mental illness is a condition that affects a person's thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Some common conditions include depression, anxiety, and eating di