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Dos and Don’ts: Communicating with Your Child With Mental Health Challenges

As the rise in mental health issues in children and teens continues to grow, so does the difficulty of knowing what to do when you find out your own child may be experiencing issues with their mental health. Whatever parenting technique you may have grown up with may not be as effective with a child with mental illness or mental health issues. It may agitate your child’s symptoms or their feeling of not being understood further, which may in turn cause stress and feelings of frustration for yourself. If this sounds like you, this list will hopefully help enrich your conversation with your child.

DON’T: Use “performance talk.”

When I say, “performance talk,” I’m referring to talk about your child’s grades, report cards, or engagement at school or at home. This may seem like a strange thing to NOT do, but often when you talk to a child with mental health issues about what they may be doing wrong performance-wise, it can make your child feel antagonized and/or like their feelings and needs are being ignored.

DO: Take a child-centered approach.

What do I mean by this? What I mean is that what you can do instead of asking your child about why they aren’t doing well in school, you can ask them about what their wants and needs are so that they know that you care about them, and how they are doing. When a child with mental health issues isn’t doing well in school, that usually doesn’t mean that “They’re being lazy,” or “They’re not applying themselves enough.” Often for a child with mental health issues, poor grades or poor engagement at school can signal that your child may be struggling with something deeper, like depression, anxiety, scrutiny from peers, schoolwork load, or even teachers misunderstanding your child’s needs at school. When communicating with your child about most things, including school performance, it is important to start the conversation by making it about your child’s needs, and not about your own disappointments or frustrations. You may be surprised by how much your child may open up after directly addressing their wants and needs.

DON’T: Using “I’m the boss,” language or yelling when setting rules in the household.

Often as a parent, you have to make it clear that you are the one with the authority and the power to make decisions in the household. However, when communicating with your child with mental illness or with mental health issues, your child may feel alienated or like their thoughts and feelings don’t matter if you raise your voice or try to force your child to follow strict rules. This may cause arguing, refusal to respect you, or even refusal to talk.

DO: Remain calm, set specific boundaries and rules, and check your emotions at the door.

While it’s important to treat your child with respect, it is also important that your child recognizes that you are the parent and that rules must be followed. On the other hand, as I have mentioned before, yelling or trying to force your child to follow rules is often not effective when trying to set boundaries with your child who has mental health issues. When communicating with your child about rules in the household or boundaries that need to be set, it is often a lot more effective to remain calm and not lose your temper. This may be easier said than done, but if you respond in anger when communicating with your child, your child may also respond in anger, leading to an argument and ineffective communication. Also, when you set rules and boundaries with your child, it can be helpful to explain why the rules you are setting are important. Your child will most likely not follow your rules if they don’t understand why they have to follow them. Be specific about what the rules of the household are and why your child has to follow them. “I’m the boss,” is usually not going to be a good enough!

DON’T: Blame yourself or your child.

Making statements like “This wouldn’t be happening if you…” or “You can only blame yourself, because…” can be extremely emotionally harmful to a child with mental health issues. Alternatively, it is also important for you not to blame yourself. Assigning blame during communication with your child—whether it’s your child or yourself—will most likely be damaging to your relationship, your child’s mental health, and/or your own mental health. The child may feel guilty if you blame yourself, and your guilt as a parent may be fed more. If you blame your child for their mental health issue or mental illness, your child may feel anger or resentment toward you, feel like everything is their fault, and/or lose their trust in you.

DO: Acknowledge that the mental illness or mental health issue is caused by external factors or a chemical imbalance and is not your or your child’s fault.

Often, the best way to avoid assigning blame when communicating with your child about mental health is to separate the mental illness or mental health issue from you and your child altogether. You can do this by stepping back and looking at what is really causing your child’s mental health problems. You can ask yourself questions like “Is this because of stress at school, or stress at home?” or “Is this a chemical imbalance, or is this really because of me or my child?” It can also be helpful to point out to yourself and your child that the emotions, behaviors, and thoughts are symptoms and are not either of your identities. Once you separate the mental health problems from you and your child, it will most likely make it easier to cope with those issues and improve your overall communication.

I sincerely hope that these dos and don’ts offer insight, improve your communication with your child, and make it easier to cope with your child’s mental illness or mental health issue. Ultimately, remember that no one gets it right the first time and that it’s okay to make mistakes, because that’s normal. What is important is how you approach communication with your child moving forward. Have empathy for your child, and have empathy for yourself.


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