If you really want to reach your children, it takes more than a single talk. Child development experts agree the most effective communication is an ongoing conversation.
However, starting those conversations can be tough and not because of our kids. Sometimes, it’s our own hesitancy as parents.
James Taylor, a licensed professional counselor at North Alabama Psychiatric Associates, understands. He says, “I think that, as parents, we get worried. We get concerned about, ‘well, what if they tell me something that I don’t want to hear? What if they tell me something that I don’t know what to do with?'”
Many parents also fear making their children feel worse. However, mental health professionals say the opposite is true.
Dr. Nina Reynolds is a clinical psychologist at Children’s of Alabama. She says, “I hear from a lot of kids that they want to talk about how they are feeling, but they don’t tell their parents about their stress because they don’t want to upset or burden the parent, and not because it would make their stress any worse.”
Dr. Heath Penland, medical director at North Alabama Psychiatric Associates, adds, “just providing a language for a child about their emotions can go a long way.”
How you speak to your child will vary on their age and developmental level, but in general, experts agree you’ll want to talk when your child feels safe and comfortable. Opportunities can arise anytime – while driving in the car, at bedtime, or just hanging out watching TV.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a respected researcher of children and mental health. If you’re struggling for how to start a conversation, here are a few recommended openers from the CDC:
“You know, when our minds are stuck on bad things, it can be really hard to focus on other things. Have you ever felt this way? What kinds of things does your mind get stuck on?”
“People can be angry, sad, or worried when something bad happens. Tell me what you have been feeling.”
Often, your child may something themselves to spark the conversation. When that happens, take the opportunity. Watch for their reactions during the discussion. If they become confused or look upset, slow down or back up. Listen openly and without interruption.
Don’t forget to do some sharing yourself, which helps empower your children to be honest with you. Dr. Penland says, “I usually tell parents, you can share whatever you feel comfortable with your child, as long as you are there to explain it to them. If you are there as a parent to teach them and explain it to them, usually that’s the best medicine.”
While more and more people are beginning to recognize depression and anxiety in children, there are other mental health issues. For example, eating disorders – which according to Johns Hopkins Medicine have the highest risk of death of any mental illness.
Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has some excellent resources on recognizing eating disorders in children while the National Eating Disorders Association has this parent toolkit.
Another specific issue affecting children and teens is substance use disorder (SUD) – whether that be drugs or alcohol. Along with eating disorders, mental health professionals report a worsening of SUD during the pandemic.
The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration is a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Their resources include: why you should talk to your child and having the small conversations. There’s also information on how to tell if your child is drinking alcohol.
If you suspect drug use, you may find some helpful information at healthychildren.org
If your child does share something beyond your ability to handle, never forget there are professionals available to help. Parenting is hard. You don’t have to go it alone.