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What to say (and what not to say) when talking to your kids about mental health

Posted at 2:39 PM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 08:16:04-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- One out of every six children between the ages of six and 17 will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder this year, according to the national alliance on mental illness.

Having casual conversations with children about mental health from a young age can make all the difference as they grow up, mental health experts said.

"The most important thing to do, like anything else, is to normalize it," Dr. Robert Findling, Chairman of the VCU Dept. of Psychiatry, said. "A lot of youngsters struggle at some point in their childhood with concerns, whether it be regarding school, perhaps their mood, most commonly it's anxiety."

If not addressed head-on, those common experiences can worsen as kids age.

"We run the risk of overthinking things. And it's really simple. If it's a problem, it's a problem," Dr. Findling said.

Conversations about mental health are a constant within Jenny Fisher's family.​

"I think the issue is like anything else, many young people who are suffering, potentially in harm's way, never get treated," Fisher said. "I'm a pretty big advocate of talking about seeing therapists, talking about medication. Some people just need it. And talking with our kids about some of those things and being pretty open."

The Richmond mother has a 10-year-old son, Cash, and an eight-year-old daughter, Clarabelle.

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"I have a child that is a big feeler and one that's pretty happy and carefree most of the time. But I have one that has a lot of big feelings," she said.

Talking about mental health was not normal in her childhood home, Fisher said.

That was something she was determined to change when she started her own family.

"It's much harder to parent if you're not healthy," she said. "So, part of that is making sure that you're healthy. Then hopefully that will go into your parenting life and you'll be a healthier parent."

Fisher admitted some conversations go better than others.

"But we try to talk about it and talk about feelings a lot," she said.

Dr. Findling said explaining things like anxiety and depression to young children can be simple.

"Anxiety simply means you worry, and everybody worries about something," Dr. Findling said. "Depending on the age of the child, maybe you get, do you worry about being in the dark? Do you worry about spiders? What happens if you were that scared and that worried all the time even if you weren't in front of a spider, even if it wasn't in the dark?"

And for depression.

"Think about being in a really bad mood or a really sad mood. And think about getting stuck there. So you stop being happy like you used to," he said.

A new exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia can help break the ice when it comes to these conversations, Dr. Catherine Franssen said.

It's called Mental Health: Mind Matters.

"Maybe by viewing things through a more scientific lens, we can all think about it practically and more matter of factly and be able to have those kinds of conversations without a whole bunch of stigma and concern," Dr. Franssen said. "It is a good place to think about those multi-generational conversations that we can have about mental health."

The exhibit includes historical context to different types of mental health disorders, and what life may be like for people who live with them.

It also offers more interactive areas.

"There's this faces kind of thing where you can sort of act out facial expressions," said Dr. Franssen. "Now, of course, we're wearing masks these days. But there's an amazing amount of facial expression that is in our eyes and the top half of our faces."

For parents whose child may be in need of professional help or resources, Dr. Findling said your child's pediatrician is a good place to start, but this is what he wants parents to remember:

"It's about openness, and with kids, they'll pick up the signals; if talking about feelings as okay, talking about frustrations is okay, then it'll be okay," said Dr. Findling. "If they pick up the message that it's really not something we do, it's not something we want to hear about, that's the message."

The segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.

Additional resources:

Cameron K. Gallagher Mental Health Resource Center:

This free service is housed at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children.

The Center’s family navigators have all experienced mental health needs in their own families, so they can relate to the families that they support.

The navigators connect families to mental health services and resources regardless of their zip code or insurance status. (Ie a family in southwest Virginia can give the navigator their zip code and insurance carrier and they’ll share therapists close to their home who specialize in their child’s particular mental health need along with other community resources.)

Children's Hospital of Richmond blog:

A hub for CHOR VCU mental health articles – addressing everything from the rainbow of emotions caused by COVID-19 to suicide prevention and knowing the signs of depression in teens and how to help.

It’s a good place for families to start if they have questions or want to learn more.