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How to Have Constructive Conversations With Kids About Mental Health

My first rule for dealing with mental health was we wouldn’t talk about mental health. Coming from a family with a history of massive depressive disorders, suicide, and a steady stream of antidepressants running through the veins of many, my hope was that my children and I would be spared.


It was naïve, but I did not go into parenting prepared because I didn’t want to face the realities of this happening to my crew. Reality knocked me off my feet a couple of years ago when I found myself struggling with anxiety while one of my kids periodically battled obsessive compulsive behavior. Another child jumped on the anxiety train with me soon after.

With a world that looked nothing like my idealized, perfectly mentally healthy vision, I was at a loss for how to move forward. How do we talk to our kids about the illnesses no one can see?

Why we don’t talk about it

Parental guilt is a heavy burden, and it keeps us from talking about mental illness in children. Not only do we avoid discussing it with our kids, but many are ashamed to share these struggles with other adults.

When my daughter washed her hands so often that they bled, I blamed myself. She has Celiac disease, and washing hands is one of the best ways to keep her safe from gluten. However, I felt my training led her down a path of destruction, and I just wanted to fix it, not discuss it.

Parents also don’t want to label their kids. One mom I spoke to said that offering solutions can work, but labeling the actual issue may reinforce it, making the child feel like they are only the condition they struggle with. She’s seen this happen during her time as an educator.

These concerns are real, but so are childhood mental health struggles. According to the Child Mind Institute, mental health issues affect children more than any other health problem.

Though the conversations may evolve over time, starting out a bit vague and moving into more detailed discussions, we need to make sure our kids are comfortable talking about the good and bad feelings and thoughts they experience. Here’s how.

Get educated

We need to face our own views of mental illness before trying to help kids wrap their minds around the concept. Educating ourselves to make sure we don’t inadvertently pass down false information or stereotypes is essential. It will also help us answer the plethora of questions that usually come from kids.

Early and often

Talking about mental health should happen the same way talking about sex should: early and often. Amanda Petrik-Gardner, LCPC says “from an early age, talk about feelings.” These discussions will look different depending on a child’s stage of life, but the sooner kids learn that they are safe to ask questions or express big feelings, the more likely it is that this will be the norm in their worlds.

In very young kids, this can mean giving them words to describe their feelings. As they age, parents can talk more about the signs of anxiety or depression, giving their children a language early on that will help them communicate if things go off course.

Petrik-Gardner points out that we need to “provide a non-judgmental atmosphere when a child speaks about their feelings.” This can be a challenge because, as adults, a child’s feelings may not make sense to us. However, acknowledging what they are going through is key when identifying problems and helping them through them. We want to talk to them in a way that will keep them talking to us.

Offer options

It’s horrifying for anyone to feel trapped with no options for escape. Talking to kids about possible help for the issues that ail them is key. We tell our kids what possibilities are available when they are physically sick, such as rest, medication, and hydration. We can do the same for mental illness.

When my daughter complained of feeling the need to obsessively wash her hands again, I talked to her about how last time this happened her selenium levels were freakishly low. I pointed her to the possible reason, and then we discussed the fix. The problem wasn’t instantly cured but we had a game plan, and that is empowering.

Look to literature

Books are amazing tools when trying to help kids feel less alone as they struggle. Books like “Wilma Jean, the Worry Machine” and “Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears” address mental health struggles head on and give practical solutions for how to deal with them.

This is also a great way to introduce the topic without pointing it out in a child. Characters in the books are the ones dealing with these problems, but kids will often come forward on their own and talk about how they relate to the characters when given the chance. It gives them an opportunity to define what they are experiencing instead of having someone else do it for them.

Reading these books to or with kids can help them feel represented, and it can also offers kids who don’t struggle with these issues a way to see things from the point of view of a character who does. Research shows that those who read fiction tend to do better on tests scoring empathy, so reading about these issues to kids who don’t deal with them is a great way to help them help others.

Offer them the ability to talk to someone else

We often want to be the one-stop fix for all of our kids’ problems. However, we do better when we acknowledge that our children might be more comfortable talking to someone else about their feelings.

Dr. Cindy T. Graham says, “some kids might not feel comfortable talking to their parents about their worries and mood. Parents should be open to allowing their child to speak with any adult who is qualified to handle these topics with whom their child feels comfortable speaking.”

Though it can be hard to put this job into someone else’s hands, it’s important to do it if our child will benefit. It’s not always easy to talk about the darkest parts of ourselves with the people we’re closest to. A child may find a therapist easier to confide in.

These conversations don’t have to be big and scary. Mental health, like physical health, takes work, and our kids need to know what that looks like. They also need to know that asking for support when their minds feel unwell is good and acceptable.

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Summer heat has a way of making the house feel smaller, more congested, with less room for the air to circulate. And there's nothing like the heat to make me want to strip down, cool off and lighten my load. So, motivation in three digits, now that school is back in, it's time to do a purge.

Forget the spring clean—who has time for that? Those last few months of the school year are busier than the first. And summer's warm weather entices our family outdoors on the weekends, which doesn't leave much time for re-organizing.

So, I seize the opportunity when my kids are back in school to enter my zone.

I love throwing open every closet and cupboard door, pulling out anything and everything that doesn't fit our bodies or our lives. Each joyless item purged peels off another oppressive layer of "not me" or "not us."

Stuff can obscure what really makes us feel light, capable and competent.

Stuff can stem the flow of what makes our lives work.

With my kids back in school, I am energized, motivated by the thought that I have the space to be in my head with no interruptions. No refereeing. No snacks. No naps… I am tossing. I am folding. I am stacking. I am organizing. I don't worry about having to stop. The neat-freak in me is having a field day.

Passing bedroom doors, ajar and flashing their naughty bits of chaos at me, it's more than I can handle in terms of temptation. I have to be careful, though, because I can get on a roll. Taking to my kids' rooms I tread carefully, always aware that what I think is junk can actually be their treasure.

But I usually have a good sense for what has been abandoned or invisible in plain sight for the lack of movement or the accumulation of dust. Anything that fits the description gets relegated to a box in the garage where it is on standby—in case its absence is noticed and a meltdown has ensued. Crisis averted. Either way, it's a victory.

Oh, it's quiet. So, so quiet. And I can think it all through…

Do we really need all this stuff?

Will my son really notice if I toss all this stuff?

Will my daughter be heartbroken if I donate all this stuff?

Will I really miss this dress I wore three years ago that barely fit my waist then and had me holding in my tummy all night, and that I for sure cannot zip today?

Can we live without it all? All. This. Stuff?

The fall purge always gets me wondering, where in the world does all this stuff come from? So with the beginning of the school year upon us, I vow to create a new mindset to evaluate everything that enters my home from now on, so that there will be so much less stuff.

I vow to really think about objects before they enter my home…

…to evaluate what is really useful,

...to consider when it would be useful,

...to imagine where it would be useful,

...to remember why it may be useful,

…to decide how to use it in more than one way,

... so that all this stuff won't get in the way of what really matters—time and attention for my kids and our lives as a new year reveals more layers of the real stuff—what my kids are made of.

Bring it on.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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For many years, Serena Williams seemed as perfect as a person could be. But now, Serena is a mom. She's imperfect and she's being honest about that and we're so grateful.

On the cover of TIME, Williams owns her imperfection, and in doing so, she gives mothers around the world permission to be as real as she is being.

"Nothing about me right now is perfect," she told TIME. "But I'm perfectly Serena."

The interview sheds light on Williams' recovery from her traumatic birth experience, and how her mental health has been impacted by the challenges she's faced in going from a medical emergency to new motherhood and back to the tennis court all within one year.

"Some days, I cry. I'm really sad. I've had meltdowns. It's been a really tough 11 months," she said.

It would have been easy for Williams to keep her struggles to herself over the last year. She didn't have to tell the world about her life-threatening birth experience, her decision to stop breastfeeding, her maternal mental health, how she missed her daughter's first steps, or any of it. But she did share these experiences, and in doing so she started incredibly powerful conversations on a national stage.

After Serena lost at Wimbledon this summer, she told the mothers watching around the world that she was playing for them. "And I tried," she said through tears. "I look forward to continuing to be back out here and doing what I do best."

In the TIME cover story, what happened before that match, where Williams lost to Angelique Kerber was revealed. TIME reports that Williams checked her phone about 10 minutes before the match, and learned, via Instagram, that the man convicted of fatally shooting her sister Yetunde Price, in 2003 is out on parole.

"I couldn't shake it out of my mind," Serena says. "It was hard because all I think about is her kids," she says. She was playing for all the mothers out there, but she had a specific mother on her mind during that historic match.

Williams' performance at Wimbledon wasn't perfect, and neither is she, as she clearly states on the cover of time. But motherhood isn't perfect either. It's okay to admit that. Thanks, Serena, for showing us how.

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There are some mornings where I wake up and I'm ready for the day. My alarm goes off and I pop out of bed and hum along as I make breakfast before my son wakes up. But then there are days where I just want 10 more minutes to sleep in. Or breakfast feels impossible to make because all our time has run out. Or I just feel overwhelmed and unprepared.

Those are the mornings I stare at the fridge and think, Can someone else just make breakfast, please?

Enter: make-ahead breakfasts. We spoke to the geniuses at Pinterest and they shared their top 10 pins all around this beautiful, planned-ahead treat. Here they are.

(You're welcome, future self.)

1. Make-ahead breakfast enchiladas

www.pinterest.com

Created by Bellyful

I'd make these for dinner, too.

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