Helping Children Understand Mental Health: A Primer

Children are curious creatures: in a world full of promise, exciting experiences and new knowledge to be gained, who can blame them? As many parents can attest to, explaining the reasoning behind even the common of phenomena to a child can result in an endless slew of ‘whys’ – until you get to a point where even they’re a little unsure of the ultimate answer to it all. That routine isn’t made any easier by the need to provide the explanation in a way that’s elementary enough for the inquiring young mind to understand.

Now, imagine having to explain to your child why the man sitting on the street corner is yelling loudly at no one or why grandma can’t remember their name anymore. Given that even adults struggle to talk about mental health with each other, it can seem overwhelming to help your child understand the fundamentals behind what is often, a very complex subject.

In today’s blog, we’ll outline several key suggestions and considerations that can help make explaining mental illness to your child less daunting.

  1. Structure your answer with the child’s age in mind: This might seem like an obvious one – trying to explain the chemical and genetic theories behind depression to a four year old might result in greater confusion than they initially had. Children of different ages will have different abilities to contextualize what you’re describing with their existing knowledge. For toddlers, focusing on the “concrete information” or the basic cause and effect may be more appropriate. As BC’s Here to Help outlines, simplifying depression as “when daddy is sick, he has difficulty going to work” may be all the detail a young child, needs. Older children and teenagers will be able to understand more and could want more detailed information, so make sure that you’re equipped to help answer their questions. However, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” – it’s better to admit that you don’t have the answer than to misinform and mislead.


  1. Contextualize mental illness through physical illness: Despite the societal strides in understanding mental health, even today, we tend to treat physical pain as more legitimate than mental illness. While children might not understand the complexities of schizophrenia, contextualizing mental illness through physical pain or illness can be a useful stepping stone to help them understand why someone may be “sick” and demonstrating certain behaviours. Framing it as a part of the brain being sick, like a stomach ache or a throat infection that your young child has experienced can help provide the personal contextualization needed to better understand the symptoms of a mental illness.


  1. Don’t stigmatize – educate: There’s a lot of misinformation out there about mental illness; much of it serves to put already vulnerable people at greater risk – whether its getting fired from a job or getting shot by police. As a parent, one of the hats you wear is as one of your child’s educators and it’s important for their sake – and for those suffering from mental illness – that you don’t rely on tired tropes when explaining it to your children. For example, your child might encounter someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in one of their classes. Those with ASD often have difficulty communicating with people and may be more sensitive to stimuli. You would do the child with ASD and yours a disservice if you dissuaded your child from playing with them or if you described their behaviour in negative terms. Help your child understand that people have differences but that everybody deserves to be treated with respect and kindness.


  1. Keep the conversation going: There’s a few conversations that a parent ultimately knows they’ll have with their children at some point in time. Despite foreknowledge and preparation, some of us never seem ready to broach the conversation about the changes that are happening in our children’s bodies and what we mean when we say, “the birds and the bees”. Like those conversations, it’s not an open and shut case – the subject matter is too vast and evolving for one discussion. Mental illness, and more broadly, mental health, is just as large and it’s important that we don’t appear to be closing the door on our willingness to discuss it. You could explain what’s happening to someone else but if your child senses that you’re apprehensive or unwilling to discuss it again, who will they turn to if they ever need to talk about their own mental health issues? As a parent, be ready, be there and be proactive on the information and conversations that your child needs to hear.

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