How to Help Parents Talk to Their Children About Mental Health

How to Help Parents Talk to Their Children About Mental Health

A pediatric psychologist offers strategies clinicians can share with parents to help children talk about how they’re feeling.
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Many children don’t feel comfortable talking about their thoughts and feelings. Often kids do not open up because of stigma or fear of upsetting their peers and the adults in their lives. However, health care clinicians can help by empowering parents to be supportive resources for their children.

Parents greatly influence their children’s mental health. The behaviors they reward and model themselves—like checking in or taking deep breaths when they’re feeling overwhelmed—directly affect children’s ability to talk about and cope with their own mental health as they get older.

According to a recent national survey, 93% of parents of children 18 years old or younger say having conversations about mental health with their children is important, but 59% say they need help starting these conversations. Less than half said they grew up having these conversations with their parents.

On Our Sleeves, a national movement for children’s mental health powered by the behavioral health experts at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is dedicated to breaking down the stigma around pediatric mental health and educating adults on how to promote the mental wellness of the children in their lives. Its latest initiative, Operation: Conversation, is an extension of that effort, providing parents with conversation starters and educational resources to open and maintain lines of communication with their kids.

These conversation tools can help parents feel comfortable and empower them to have discussions about mental health.

Here are a few of the strategies clinicians can share with parents.

  • Encourage routine check-ins. If children have a conversation every day with their parents about how they’re feeling, difficult conversations are going to feel more natural and comfortable.
  • Encourage open-ended questions. Parents should leave agendas aside. A conversation starter as simple as “what are you thinking about today?” can lead to a beneficial conversation, fostering trust and openness in the future.
  • Identify the right time to have difficult conversations. Encourage parents to find times when there is little distraction and emotions are calm. The child may feel surprised by the conversation and shut down, so start by asking if it is a good time to talk. If emotions start getting difficult, it is okay to pause the conversation and resume later when the child is ready.
  • Share coping strategies they can model for their kids. Children are always watching their parents. If parents have unhealthy coping mechanisms or do not model positive mental health strategies, their children will not have the resources to cope on their own.

For additional resources and tools to help parents start and maintain conversations with their children, visit the On Our Sleeves resources page.

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Written By:
Ariana Hoet, Ph.D.
Clinical Director, On Our Sleeves; Pediatric Psychologist, Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

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