Mental illness can be hard for very young children to understand. If a parent, sibling, or other close family member is coping with depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, or another mental health issue, their change in behavior can be distressing to a young child. And if your child has been diagnosed with a mental illness herself, she is likely scared and confused. Talking with kids about mental illness is the best way to help them overcome their fears.
Stick with only the basics at first. Young children are not going to understand every nuance of a mental health disorder. But you can help them to understand that a mental illness is similar to a physical illness, like diabetes. In fact, many mental illnesses are highly treatable, and can be considered by your child to be a manageable yet ongoing issue. Help your child to understand that most people know someone with a mental illness, that mental health issues are not contagious, and that mental health is not something that needs to be swept under the rug. Talking about your child’s feelings is healthy and can promote understanding.
Quell any fears or concerns. Children may be very fearful and distressed when they see a family member acting differently, needing more time to themselves, or exhibiting behaviors that are different from usual. Let your child know that a family member’s mental illness is not his fault, and that it’s not up to him to provide a “cure”. Let her know that many mental health issues are manageable, and will likely get better in time with treatment from doctors.
Ask for help, especially when you’re confused. Do you feel confused about the mental health issue yourself? Are you uncomfortable talking about mental health with your child? Meeting with a family therapist may help provide much needed clarity for you and your child, and will help to promote conversation and allay fears.
If someone close to your child, or if your child herself, is going through a mental health situation, please discuss this with your daycare or preschool teachers. They can collaborate with you and your family to make sure your child’s needs are being met during this time.