Beginning a conversation with family members about our mental health can seem daunting, as the fear of being misunderstood or misrepresented can leave us to prefer silence. Additionally, parents may wish to conceal their mental health issues from their children as it may be viewed as not being ‘age appropriate', or parental vulnerability may seem alien to the family dynamic. However, children are most likely aware that a problem is occurring, and if parents are to lead by example, opening up about their mental health will make it easier, in turn, for their children to do so in the future. Helen Spiers, head of counselling at Mable Therapy, enlightens us as to how a parent can begin to approach that discussion with their children.

Awareness around mental health has grown massively in the last decade. Most people now know the importance of opening up and talking about difficult feelings, but it’s not always that easy. Despite growing acceptance, there’s many who stay silent, worried about the stigma of talking openly about their mental health. This can be particularly difficult for parents wanting to discuss their mental health with their children. While it’s important to be honest, it can be difficult for us to know how much to share without worrying or burdening our children. So how can parents navigate this tricky terrain and discuss mental health in a way that removes the taboo?

Removing the stigma

When it comes to educating people about mental health, there’s a long way to go. Portrayals in the media are often unhelpful, tabloids will sometimes bask in the ‘unravelling’ of celebrities, while screen characters are often seen being locked away for their own protection or acting in wild and unpredictable ways.

Closer to home, there can be just as many misconceptions. Those suffering with their mental health risk the reaction of ignorant or unsympathetic loved ones, while some may even encounter GPs or teachers that talk about mental health as if there’s a choice. Statements about ‘pulling your socks up’, ‘looking on the bright side’ and ‘what have you got to be sad about?’ are sadly still being heard across the UK, leaving those on the receiving end feeling isolated and invalidated.

For children and young people the tide seems to be turning. Tireless campaigns and improved education mean that they’re more likely to see mental health issues as less taboo, and something that can be overcome. However in my work as a counsellor I know there are still many students who won’t come and see me because they fear being bullied if their peers find out. Insults such as ‘mental’ are still thrown around in playgrounds while issues such as eating disorders and self-harm in young people are often labelled as ‘fashionable’ or something done for attention.

For both adults and children, talking about mental health can feel like a huge risk, with many deciding it’s easier to keep it under wraps. However, if we can talk to our children about their emotional wellbeing, we have the chance to strengthen our relationship, build the child’s empathy and understanding, and promote positive attitudes towards mental health.

Talking to children about mental health

1. Be honest

It’s important to be as honest as possible, using straightforward language and avoiding euphemisms. However, it’s still important that this is done in an age-appropriate way. It can be useful to use physical health as a comparison: ‘sometimes we might have a broken leg or a poorly tummy and we need help with this, well that’s the same with mental illness…’ It’s also helpful to talk to our children about what they might have noticed: ‘you may have noticed lately that I’ve been very tired and seemed sad…’ . We can then reassure them this is nothing to worry about, they’re just signs that we need a bit of help with our mental health.

2. Prepare in advance

It can be really helpful to plan what to say in advance, either by practising with someone, or writing it down and reading it out loud. By doing so, we’ll be more confident about what we want to say and it will feel less difficult to say the words out loud. It’s important we’re prepared to discuss the practicalities of the issue, including if the child needs to help in any way. If they’re going to need to get themselves ready for school or give us some quiet time when we’re having a tough day, they need to know when this will be needed and how we’ll communicate it with them.

3. Reassure them

Children are inherently egocentric and believe the world revolves around them. This means that when things go wrong, they’ll assume it’s their fault and will find a way to make that narrative fit. As parents, we need to let our children know that it’s not their fault and there’s nothing they could have done differently. They will probably need to hear this lots of times for it to sink in, so keep the lines of communication open and don’t let it become a taboo subject.

4. Let them be children

While it’s important to be open and honest about mental health, it’s important that we’re maintaining our role as parents. As a counsellor, I work with lots of young people who have become a confidante or support network to a parent, who will turn to them when they’re having a bad day. If we need to have a good cry or really offload then an adult family member or friend is the better choice, or if not, calling the samaritans may be the answer. Children who feel responsible for their parents’ mental wellbeing are much more at risk of struggling themselves.

5. Be proactive

We never know when mental health issues will arise, so it’s important to talk about it even if it doesn’t feel necessary. Helping children to understand that mental health is a spectrum and we’re all likely to struggle at times, will help to normalise any issues and make them more likely to ask for help. In recent years celebrities such as pop stars Jesy Nelson and Yungblud, and footballers Danny Rose and Aaron Lennon have opened up about their own mental health struggles. Talking about their stories can be a great way to get the conversation started and let children know that mental health difficulties can happen to anyone.

Talking about our mental health can be hard and if we’re already low, it can feel easier to sweep it under the carpet and pretend everything is okay. However, children are incredibly observant and are likely to have picked up that something is wrong, even if we think we’re masking it well. By opening up, we’re hopefully removing a lot of confusion and worry. And who knows, maybe by educating the next generation about mental health, we’ll finally be able to stop the stigma.