How to talk to young children about mental health

Published on 11/22/2018 by Natalie Nowkawalk
As a counsellor in private practise with children, teens and adults, I am grateful for this opportunity to share some tips on speaking to young children about mental health.

1)  Prepare.   Take time to think about what you want to say to you a young child, how to say it and when is a best time to bring up the subject.  There are many articles on the internet, books in libraries and over the internet that can be ordered around mental health issues age appropriate to young children.  Reading some articles and learning the language best suited to a child's age can be helpful.

2) Take it in steps.  Start simple when starting to speak to a young child about mental health.  You can begin by introducing what different feelings are.  Drawing faces with expressions and choosing colours to represent different feelings and moods can be a simple and memorable way for young children to begin to put words to what feelings are.  Start with some basic feelings like happy, sad, mad, and scared for example.  Remember that every child is different.  Some children learn through stories, others through drawing, others through talking and others through experience.  

3) Use creative ways to teach.  Children often learn best when they are interested.  You can transform a game in to a social game and an opportunity to teach them about feelings and thoughts.  Take a game like jenga and write some questions on the wood pieces such as:   Think of a fun memory.   What is something that makes you sad.   What does it feel like to be happy, etc.  Snakes and ladders is another example where every time you go up a ladder you can think of a good feeling or good memory and when you go down the slide, what is a not good feeling or not good memory.   Making a game of feeling tic tac toe or feeling bingo is another way to help teach about different feelings and open the child to talk about memories.  

4)  Next steps:  Once you feel a young child has more of an understanding of feelings, some next things to teach may be awareness of the physical body health and mental health.  They can learn to understand that there are ways we can keep our body healthy by exercise, eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, brushing teeth, drinking water, etc and that we can also take care of our minds to have mental health by talking to people when we need help with our feelings, learning about our feelings and learning to think positive.  

5)  If a parent has mental health issues:  Again, teaching a young child about mental health if a parent has a mental health issue, is best done in steps.  Once a child understands what feelings are and ways to keep a good mental health, it can be possible to teach them in an age appropriate way that some people need help to keep a good mental health.  Just like when our tooth hurts, we go to a dentist, or when our body is not feeling well, we go to a family doctor, when someone is needing help with their mental health, they can get special help too from a counsellor, doctor, friends and family. If the child seems receptive and ready to learn more, they can understand, again in a child appropriate way that their parent may need some special help so that they can have a better mental health.   It is always helpful for a child to know that the parent is seeking support and that it is not the child's fault.  It is always a good opportunity for a parent to reinforce they love their child and are open to answer any questions they may have about this.
6) Seek counselling:  Counsellors are resources not only for helping someone through issues, but also to help suggest resources.  To find a counsellor, you can look online, call 211 which provides information on social resources across Ontario, ask a family doctor or find out from friends and family if they know of a good counsellor in the area.  

There are many more tips and information available on this topic online and through local community resources.  Opening the conversation is step in the right direction!

Natalie Nowkawalk, MSW, RSW
1012 Queen Street 
Tel: 519-396-2611