If you are the caregiver of someone living with depression or bipolar, you know how important it is to have thoughtful conversations with your loved ones about their diagnosis. These conversations will vary depending on your caregiving circumstance. The best way to discuss mental health with a younger person will be based on their age and developmental level. Before you begin these conversations, it can also be helpful to do some self-reflection. By taking time for self-reflection and education, you will have a clearer idea of what you do and do not understand about mental health conditions.
Meeting children at their level of understanding
When talking to younger children about mental health, it may be easiest to compare a mental health condition to a physical health condition. For example, you can explain that when people live with diabetes, they must take insulin to keep them healthy and they probably go see doctors more than others. When you live with a mental health condition, you may also have to go see doctors more often and maybe take medicines.
When talking to younger children, caregivers can explain that it is normal to feel angry, sad, anxious, or irritable, and that everyone feels these things from time to time. It is when those feelings are intense, last for a long time, or interfere with school, friendships, or family relationships that we might want to talk to someone who can help.
When talking to older children about mental health conditions, it is important to validate what they are feeling. By the time children are approaching puberty, developmentally, they can think more abstractly and be more introspective about their own feelings. When caregivers begin to talk to teens about mental health conditions, they should come prepared to listen to the teen’s perspective.
Teen years can be a confusing time because of the hormonal changes associated with growing to adulthood. For teens, their bodies are changing, they are feeling new emotions, and they begin to navigate gaining independence from their family unit and forming more social bonds with peers. With all this change going on, it can be hard to discern what is a typical mood shift versus what could be a mental health condition that needs addressing. Understanding the child’s baseline can help clarify this. If you notice a teen moving away from their normal behaviors in a dramatic way, it may be a good time to check in. Starting those conversations from a place of love and care while listening closely to the teen can help you begin positively.
Tips for talking about mental health with young people
Validate their feelings. After you have listened to a teen, let them know that you hear what they are saying. Let them know that you empathize with what they are going through and that you will work to understand how you can support them. You can let them know that while it may not seem like it, many other people also struggle with mood-related concerns. Understanding that other people struggle may not make their feelings any easier, but it can be helpful to acknowledge that they are not alone in feeling this way.
Practice reflective listening. When you practice reflective listening, you listen closely to what the other person is saying, and then you repeat back to the speaker what you heard. In this way, you let the other person know they have been heard. Think of phrasing like “I am hearing you say…” or “…. am I getting that right?” Check-in after you have reflected what you heard to ensure you heard them correctly.
Ask direct questions. Having conversations about mental health can be difficult, so sometimes we may want to speak indirectly to figure out or determine how someone is feeling. We may think bringing up changes in mood will make the mood worse for the other person. This likely will not be the case, especially if you begin the conversation from a place of love and care. It is important to use direct language to avoid misinterpretations, which can further distance you from your teen.
Addressing suicide. Suicide can be very difficult and painful to talk about. This is an area where you may be tempted to use indirect language because you fear bringing up suicide will plant the idea in your loved one’s head. Evidence shows that asking someone if they are thinking of or have thought about hurting themselves does not increase the likelihood that they will. Ask directly.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of death or suicide, call 1-800-273-TALK or text DBSA to 741-741. If you need immediate assistance, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital emergency room.
A diagnosis for pediatric depression or bipolar can be confirmed by identifying a mental health professional to work with. Pediatricians can work with families to rule out physical symptoms and provide the proper referrals a mental health worker. Often times children may express their mental health symptoms by describing physical symptoms, i.e. “my stomach hurts” “my head hurts”.
DBSA’s online screening tools can help you to explore your child’s mental health safely and determine whether you should consult with a mental health professional.