Talking To Kids About Mental Illnesses

No. 84; July 2017

Kids are naturally curious and have questions about mental illness. Understanding mental illness can be challenging for adults as well as for children. Myths, confusion, and misinformation about mental illnesses can cause anxiety, strengthen stereotypes, and lead to stigma. During the past several decades, great advances have been made in the areas of diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. Parents can help children understand that these are real illnesses that can be treated.

When parents talk with a child about mental illness, it helps if they are knowledgeable and reasonably comfortable with the subject. Parents should have a basic understanding and answers to questions such as what are mental illnesses, who can get them, what causes them if that is known, how diagnoses are made, and what treatments are available. Some parents may have to do a little homework to be better informed. AACAP’s website and the other resources listed at the end of this Facts for Families are good places to start.

When explaining to a child about how a mental illness affects a person, it may be helpful to make a comparison to a physical illness. For example, many people get sick with a cold or the flu, but only a few get really sick with something serious like pneumonia. People who have a cold are usually able to do their normal activities. However, if they get pneumonia, they will have to take medicine and may have to go to the hospital. Similarly, feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry, irritability, or sleep problems are common for most people. However, when these feelings get very strong, last for a long period of time, and begin to interfere with school, work, and relationships, it may be a sign of a mental illness that requires treatment.

Parents should be aware of their child's needs, concerns, knowledge, and experience with mental illnesses. When talking about mental illnesses, parents should:

  • communicate in a straightforward manner
  • communicate at a level that is appropriate to a child's age and development level
  • have the discussion when the child feels safe and comfortable
  • watch their child's reaction during the discussion
  • slow down or back up if the child becomes confused or looks upset

Considering these points will help any child to be more relaxed and understand more of the conversation.

Preschool Age Children

Young children need less information and fewer details because of their more limited ability to understand. Preschool children focus primarily on things they can see. For example, they may have questions about a person who has an unusual physical appearance or who is behaving strangely. They would also be very aware of people who are crying and obviously upset, or who are yelling and angry.

School-Age Children

Older children may want more specifics. They may ask more questions, especially about friends or family with emotional or behavioral problems. Their concerns and questions are usually very straightforward such as: "Why is that person crying? Why does Daddy drink and get so mad? Why is that person talking to herself?" They may worry about their safety or the safety of their family and friends. It is important to answer their questions directly and honestly and to reassure them about their concerns and feelings.

Teenagers

Teenagers are generally capable of handling much more information and asking more specific and difficult questions. Teenagers often talk more openly with their friends and peers than with their parents. As a result, some teens may already have misinformation about mental illnesses. Teenagers respond more positively to an open dialogue which includes give and take. They are not as open or responsive when a conversation feels one-sided and like a lecture.

Talking to children about mental illness can be an opportunity for parents to provide their children with information, support, and guidance. Learning about mental illnesses can lead to improved recognition, earlier treatment, greater understanding and compassion, and decreased stigma, particularly if the child and their family is part of a culture where talking about mental illness is considered taboo.

Other sources of information include:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)
3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20016
800/333-7636
www.aacap.org

American Psychiatric Association (APA)
1400 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
202/682-6220
https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families

National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health
12320 Parklawn Drive
Rockville, MD
240-403-1901
www.ffcmh.org

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)
3803 N Fairfax Drive, Suite 100
Arlington, VA 22203
800/950-6264
www.nami.org

National Mental Health Association (NMHA)
1021 Prince Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-2971
800/969-6642
www.nmha.org

See also: Your Child (1998 Harper Collins) / Your Adolescent (1999 Harper Collins)

Order Your Child from Harper Collins
Order Your Adolescent from Harper Collins


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The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) represents over 8,700 child and adolescent psychiatrists who are physicians with at least five years of additional training beyond medical school in general (adult) and child and adolescent psychiatry.

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