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Talking with a child

Tailor information about mental illness depending on a child’s  age and stage of development. If you can, it is most helpful to support parents to have these conversations with their children. Messages can be delivered in a basic way to young children, or can lead to some more in-depth conversations with older children and adolescents.

When preparing to speak with a child about mental illness, or supporting their parent to do this, think about what it is like to be in the child’s shoes. What things do they notice?  What could they be thinking or feeling?

Remember that one conversation will not be enough. Children and young people may need to hear information a number of times and ask questions to make sense of what is happening.

Give them access to resources to support their understanding.

Practice considerations Conversation ideas

Give the child accurate information about mental illness.

Think about how you can explain mental illness in an age-appropriate way.

Explain to them it is not their fault and they are not to blame.

For younger children:

'You may have noticed that your dad gets really tired and needs to sleep a lot. He wants you to know he has a [use agreed language]. You have not caused this. It is not your fault.'

For older children:

'I’ve spoken with your dad and he wants me to let you know he has [use agreed language] That means he can feel very sad about lots of things. He can also feel very tired and need to sleep a lot. His doctor has given him medicine called anti-depressants to help him. He is getting help so he can start to feel better'.
Explain how mental illness affects a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. 'You might have noticed that dad does not seem to have much energy and is always tired. Being tired is part of [use agreed language]. I am here help you and it is okay to talk about mental illness.'

Remember that comparing a mental illness with a physical one may raise a child’s worry about ‘catching’ the illness.

Consider how you might explain the ways people develop mental health issues.

'People can get [use agreed language] if they have a lot of sad or scary things to deal with for a long time. It’s not like a cold. You can’t catch [use agreed language].'

Talk to the child about how people recover from a mental health issue.

Explain the treatment if you can, including medication and counselling.

'Sometimes people with [use agreed language] need to spend time in hospital with doctors and nurses. It might take some time for your dad to get well, but lots of people do get better.'

Talk to the child about how common it is for people to have a mental health issue.

Share other children’s experiences.

'Lots of mums and dads have [use agreed language]. I work with other children who have parents with [use agreed language].They sometimes worry about their parents like you do.  They find it helps to talk to […] about their worries.'

'Would you like to see some videos from other children who talk about what life is like for them? You can watch these with mum, or with me if you like.'

Explore with the child about who they talk to when they get worried.

Give them information about who else they can talk to if things get hard.

'Who do you talk to when things get hard? Can you think of a reason you might not speak to this person if you were worried?'

'Who else do you think you can talk to or call if you’re worried about something?'

'There are people who can help parents, and people who can help kids too.'

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