5 strategies for talking to your child about their mental health

Whether your child is struggling with depression or you want to be proactive before a problem arises, these guidelines from experts can help start the conversation.

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Whether you see signs of depression in your child or just want to be proactive about their mental health, use these strategies to engage your kid in conversation.

1. Start the conversation early
“It’s hard to talk to kids about their worst stuff if you’re not having regular conversations,” says Ashley Miller, a psychiatrist with the Mood and Anxiety Disorder Clinic at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. Make sure you’re creating frequent opportunities for discussions to happen. “Sometimes it’s having neutral time together, where there’s no pressure—going for a drive, going for a walk or doing something the kid likes to do,” says Miller. Ask open-ended questions, like, “Did you talk to any friends today?” and have free-flowing conversations when you can.

2. Validate their feelings
When your child is upset, your instinct is likely to reassure them that things aren’t so bad. “But that can minimize their suffering,” says Miller. Let them know you really hear them, and that their experience sounds difficult, by saying something like, “That sounds terrible.”

3. Confront the scary stuff
When your child is talking about an emotional problem, read between the lines. Kids don’t like to be interrogated. So sometimes it’s better to trust your gut and make an educated guess, such as, “It sounds like you’re thinking of hurting yourself to get through this numbness.” If they’re showing signs of depression or self-harm, ask about suicidal thoughts. “When your kid is depressed, you want to let them know you can handle it,” says Miller.  Depression personified as a dark guy with his arm around a little boy on a benchDepression is on the rise in kids—but the signs are hard to recognize

4. Don’t take it personally
Sometimes depression comes out as anger. “Even if they say, ‘I hate you. You’re the worst mother ever,’ if you get too lost in taking it personally, you can’t see what’s going on with them,” says Miller. Sarah Cannon, whose daughter has depression, has found it’s important to take breaks—she calls on her parents for help when she needs to step away from the hurtful outbursts.

5. Seek help
Talk to your family doctor about getting a referral to a mental health program. Accessing these resources early can help your child build the tools they’ll need to deal with the illness. If your child is suicidal, seek assistance as soon as possible. During a suicidal crisis, that often means heading immediately to the emergency room.

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