In this week’s Ask NAMI Keystone PA, we’re talking about starting the conversation with your child about mental health:
Many parents think their child is struggling with depression, but aren’t sure how to bring up the topics of therapists, treatment, and mental illness. They don’t want their child to get defensive or shut them out. And caretakers may feel extremely overwhelmed and stressed. So where do parents begin?
Seeking help is a great first step. Talking to your child about mental health is not an easy conversation to have, but it’s a necessary one. Early intervention is important, because when left untreated, mental health issues can get worse. Here’s a quick guide to speaking about mental health with your child and navigating what to do next.
Know the Warning Signs
A child who is struggling with a mental health issue may experience some noticeable symptoms. As a parent, take any potential warning signs seriously. Consider talking to your child about mental health if you notice any of the following warning signs:
- Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
- Severe, out-of-control risk-taking behaviors (like starting fights or skipping school)
- Sudden overwhelming worries or fears
- Drastic changes in behavior, personality, mood, eating or sleeping habits
- Trouble concentrating or staying still
- Not eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to lose weight
- Repeated use of alcohol or drugs
- Talking about, making plans, or trying to harm or kill oneself
Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive, and symptoms may look different depending on a variety of factors (age, gender, race, culture, etc). Trust your instincts if you sense anything different about your child.
If you are worried that your child is at risk of harming themselves, seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
What To Do If You Notice Something
If you are worried about your child, talk with them about what you have noticed. Express your concern then actively listen to their thoughts and feelings. Focus on being understanding, caring, and nonjudgmental.
If you discover that your child is having a difficult time or experiencing any symptoms, make an appointment with a mental health professional. Sometimes getting an appointment with a psychiatrist or psychologist may take a while. You can also express your concerns with your pediatrician or primary care physician.
Taking Care of Yourself and Your Family
If your child receives a mental health diagnosis, be sure to educate yourself about the condition. NAMI has great online resources about mental health conditions. Share your knowledge with your family and loved ones.
In addition, NAMI has education programs for family members like NAMI Basics and Family-to-Family. These programs not only provide you with knowledge about mental health conditions, but also give you a community of support from others who are going through similar things.
Advocate for your child when needed, especially in regard to their education. Sometimes, mental health conditions can make it hard for a child to succeed in school. By law, schools are required to provide reasonable accommodations to children whose education may be affected by having a mental health condition. Talk with the school principal or counseling office if you think your child should have an accommodation. (Learn more about school accommodations here).
Finally, it’s important not to overlook your own mental health. Often times navigating the mental health system can leave parents or caregivers feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and hopeless. Taking time for self-care is necessary, whether it be a relaxing walk, or quality time with the family.
NAMI has a number of useful resources for talking to your child about mental health. Here are a few examples:
Learning to Help Your Child and Family
Talking to Your Child About Suicide
Putting a Plan in Place to Help Your Child Succeed at School (Linked Above)
Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens
For tips on how to start the conversation about mental health with an older child, check out NAMI’s College Resource Guide.