How to Talk With Your Kids about Mental Health

By: Jessica Strong

The drive started normally enough – both kids buckled into their carseats, me with my 7-month pregnant belly behind the wheel. We said goodbye to my dad, then prepared for the 3 ½ hour drive from Columbus, Ohio (my hometown) to Pittsburgh, PA (where I’ve lived for the past fourteen years).  We had a full tank of gas, music, water, snacks, gum. Check, check, check, check. 

What I was wholly unprepared for was the panic attack that happened about 45 minutes into the drive, during a pop-up summer storm. Heart racing, palms sweating, jaw clenched, ears ringing – a feeling of unshakeable terror took over as I became instantaneously convinced that death was imminent for all that I held dear. A semi would jack-knife on top of us; I’d lose control and careen into a ditch; an unbeknownst-to-me creek would swell with rain and wash us away. I began crying and gasping for breath and I still have no idea how I got us safely to the two-pump gas station in rural Gratiot, Ohio. 

We stayed at that gas station for nearly an hour, while I struggled to practice every meditation trick I’ve ever learned: centering my breath, visualizing safe roads, relaxing my jaws and fists. The kids were happy to eat ALL.THE.SNACKS and splash in puddles. 

We eventually made it home, three hours later than expected, which is a loooong time to be in a car with two energetic kids. As someone who has worked in the mental health world, who regularly gives trainings to teach adults about helping someone in a mental health emergency, I realized that I was uniquely unprepared to talk to my own kids about anxiety, about depression, about alcohol abuse. Given that one in five people will experience the signs and symptoms of a mental health issue in any given year, and given how prevalent these disorders are in our own families, it was imperative that my husband and I find a way to talk to our kids about this.

We talk in age-appropriate terms (given that the oldest are now six and eight). We’ve discussed what therapy is, when you go and talk to someone in complete privacy about things that are bothering you and they help you come up with solutions. We phrase it as, “if your tooth was hurting, we take you to the dentist; going to see a therapist is like going to see someone when you are having problems with your brain processing your emotions.” We want to break down the stigma about needing to ask for mental health help. We are open about discussing when we’ve each gone to see a therapist and how it helped. We talk about my anxiety around flying and sometimes driving - how part of my brain imagines all the bad things that could happen, how it's louder than the rational part of my brain that tries to tell it to be quiet, and how the medication helps that first part be quieter so that I can still fly or drive. 

We have talked about suicide, how sometimes people can't find any hope, even when everyone is trying to give them hope, and how they should talk to someone they trust if they ever feel really hopeless, because it will always, always get better, even if it doesn't feel like it right now.  With my 8 year old, we compared it to the time last year when an older kid was picking on her, and she was convinced he'd be mean to her forever, and she was really upset (understandably!). But then he stopped and school got better for her - so even though in the moment she thought it was awful, after a bit of time, things improved. 

We have friend with a pretty significant alcohol abuse problem, and they've heard me and my husband talking about how to get resources for her and her wife and kids - so those conversations have been along the lines of "some people enjoy drinking alcohol, like mommy and daddy have wine at dinner sometimes. But sometimes, too much alcohol makes it hard for your brain to stay in control - you move slower, you make worse decisions, you may say things or do things that you don't mean or don't remember later. And that amount of alcohol is different for everyone, and for some people, that amount is 0. But it can be difficult for some people to remain at 0, even when they know that bad things might happen when they go above 0. So we're trying to help our friend find ways to stay at 0."

We don’t know yet if any of our kids will deal with a mental health issue as they grow up, but we remain committed to being able to discuss it openly and honestly and without stigma. Hopefully they will know that this is just one more thing they can come to us about, that is free of shame, and that we’ll help them get the best care possible.

Jessica Strong has a Masters in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and has years of experience working with non-profits in the fields of mental health and social work.  She is also the visionary founder of The Whetstone Workgroup, a new co-working space in Pittsburgh, PA that features drop-in childcare!