How do you make children aware of mental health problems?

Today is National Children’s Day in the UK and it’s also the final day of Mental Health Awareness Week. So I thought I’d do a post that was relevant to both. Obviously mental health problems can affect people of all ages – children as well as adults. But what people seem to be less aware of is how seeing those around them affected by mental health problems can affect children.

So often, adults think that children are either oblivious to, or aren’t old enough to understand, what is going on in the world around them. I disagree. As a child, I remember listening to adults around me talking about me and saying things like “It’s like she understood what I was talking about!” – and I was sitting there, quietly irritated, thinking “Of course I did, I’m not stupid!”.

I think children are far more aware of things that are going on around them than people give them credit for. After all, at that age we are literally wired for taking in everything around us and learning from it. We may not understand what we’re seeing or experiencing at that age, but we are far from oblivious to it.

And there lies the problem.


But what’s wrong with trying to “protect” the child by hiding it?

Because so many adults think children won’t understand, things aren’t explained. Unfortunately, because the brain doesn’t develop the ability to reason until later childhood, younger children think that something is caused by them. So if a parent is depressed or anxious, and it is not explained to them, the child can think it is them causing it.

So why do we still try to hide mental health problems from children instead of making them as normal as physical ones? Physical ones are explained readily:
“Sorry sweetie, Mummy isn’t feeling well because she has a cold, we’ll go to the park tomorrow.”
“Mummy’s taking you swimming today because Daddy has an upset stomach.”
And yet we don’t do the same with mental health problems. Children are aware and they can be worried because a parent is upset or angry or has a panic attack, and even more so because they think they might have caused it. And yet it’s not explained because “they wouldn’t understand”. But they can understand that Mummy has a cold or Daddy has an upset stomach. It’s the same with mental health – it just needs the right words.


So how can that be done in a way that a child can understand?

Instead of trying to hide it, try to explain it:
Perhaps for Depression it could be: “Daddy has an illness that makes him sad when he doesn’t want to be.”
or for Anxiety/Panic Attacks: “Mummy has an illness that makes her scared sometimes of things that aren’t really scary.”

Make it just as normal as a physical illness. Even if it might be longer-term than a physical illness, make it sound temporary. Partly it takes the burden of “It might be my fault” off the child as it’s explained that it’s an illness, not them, that is causing the problem. Partly it means that the child grows up not hiding if they are feeling bad, and being able to talk about it when problems start, instead of bottling things up, like they might see adults doing otherwise. If emotional wellbeing is given the same priority and relevance as physical wellbeing, it’s a good thing. In the end it’ll make for them growing up into a much more self-aware and well-balanced adult.