Starting the conversation about mental health can be intimidating for parents. In this Verywell Mind article, Venkata Jonnalagadda, MD, provides tips to relieve the pressure and open the lines of communication.

cartoon father and young male child sitting on bed, talking, with boy looking upset

Last year, a national emergency in children’s and adolescent’s mental health was declared by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association. Rates of childhood anxiety and depression have continued to rise during the past decade, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in 10- to 24-year-olds.

While systemic shortcomings are certainly a factor contributing to these numbers, it’s more important now than ever to advocate for the mental health of children and teens at home. For a young person to get the help or treatment they need; parents and caregivers need to have conversations around mental health.

However, a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Nationwide Children’s Hospitals found that, while over 90% of parents of children under the age of 18 feel it’s important to discuss mental health with their kids, nearly 60% of parents need help when it comes to starting those conversations.

The survey also found that only 43% of Americans say their family talked openly about mental health while growing up.

“Mental health dialogue has a real opportunity with the current culture willing to have frank conversations and demystify and destigmatize mental illness,” says psychiatrist Venkata Jonnalagadda, MD. “It is great that people, especially parents, are more open to starting this conversation—one they recognized they too would have wanted as youth.”

For parents looking to end the cycle of silence around mental health and hold crucial and at times life-saving conversations with their children, there are some helpful strategies to try.

Starting the Conversation

Kate Tunstall, a mother of two who writes about parenting on her blog Refined Prose, reminds that children can differ greatly in their responses to navigating mental health.

“It can be very tricky getting the balance right between offering support without prying,” Tunstall says.

Asking a child about their day, their friend group or their future goals can be easy openers, but they don’t always do the trick. When her oldest daughter, Pixie, is reluctant to talk face-to-face, Tunstall suggests going for a walk or a drive. This often takes pressure off the situation and makes conversation easier and more accessible.

To promote open lines of communication, Lana Stenner, an author, and mother of five, also recommends spending time outdoors, as well as DIY pet therapy. Showing a pet extra love and attention together, or even attending a goat yoga class together, can provide opportunity for connection.

“They will talk and listen while they are softened by a fur baby,” Stenner says. “Finding those common moments and comfort allows them to open up and trust you with what’s going on in their life. All of this is just the prerequisite and building the talking moments before life goes south and mental health issues bubble up… If you have teens, no matter how stable your community and family life is, there will be a time you need to have those conversations.”

When that conversation is flowing, Jonnalagadda urges parents to listen without judgment or interruption. Try to maintain a neutral expression while still offering compassion, she says, regardless of how shocking the revelations may be. And keep in mind that you don’t need to know all the answers.

“It is okay to say, ‘I don’t know the answers, but we can find them together,'” Jonnalagadda says. “Seek out your child’s pediatrician or a mental health provider.”

In seeking out those answers, Jonnalagadda recommends steering children away from chatrooms and online forums. “Lean on trusted sites like WebMD, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry or The Mayo Clinic,” she says.

Introducing a Journaling Practice

While talking is invaluable, Tunstall says, she swears by journaling as a way to connect with a child and help them open up. She, herself, experienced the mental health benefits of journaling and wanted to share this tool with her daughter from an early age.

“She was young at the time, perhaps only four or five, so naturally it was a bit of a crude exercise to begin with,” she says. “But this is one of the joys of journaling—much of the value is in the process, rather than the result.”

Tunstall first introduced the concept of gratitude lists, inviting her daughter to list things she was thankful for. Now, they journal together regularly, often side by side. At the start of the pandemic, the practice was a lifeline, she says.

“Pixie knows she can always come to us, but when she doesn’t feel like talking or isn’t ready, I’m so glad that she can also turn to her journal as a place of comfort,” Tunstall says.

Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.

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