Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Responding to your loved ones' vulnerability with openness and compassion allows them to feel comfortable and safe, which is really important for their mental health. But having hard conversations with young people can be extremely difficult, especially when they ask tough questions. To explore how parents, caregivers, and educators can better prepare themselves for talking with youth about mental health, Gillian Smith-Clark and Maureen Pollard wrote this article from two different perspectives: as a parent, and as a clinician. Gillian Smith-Clark is a photographic artist, writer, editor for KBI Magazine and producer of the ‘Life Outside the Box’ podcast series. A survivor of suicide loss as a young person, she is a passionate advocate for suicide prevention and mental health education. Maureen Pollard is a registered social worker who has worked with individuals, families and groups for more than 27 years. She specializes in helping people cope with traumatic grief, compassion fatigue and engage in resiliency recovery.
Reflections from a Parent by Gillian Smith Clark
The questions start sooner than you’d think. As with so many other important discussions with the young people in our lives, we’re rarely ready. You believe you’re prepared. You think you’re ready, you have a narrative planned out in your head – and inevitably you’re blind-sided by either the content or the timing of the questions. Or both.
The first serious conversation I ever had about mental illness with my children caught me completely off-guard; they were so much younger than expected when a discussion about suicide crept up suddenly. Following an art class at school, my then 6 and 8-year-olds hopped in the back seat of the car full of questions about the life and death of the Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh. They peppered me with questions: did I know that he cut off his own ear? That he gave it to his girlfriend? That he took his own life? Was it all true, and why would anyone do that? Did I know anyone who had “done that”? Well, I did.
The questions caused a coldness to creep up the back of my neck and a tight knot formed in my stomach. I was immediately grateful that they were behind me and couldn’t see my face. I hadn’t thought about this for a very long time.
I am a survivor of suicide loss. Mental illness permeated my childhood, and the eventual death of my grandfather by suicide affected the trajectory of my young life in complicated and profound ways. Where do I start? How do I explain? They were so young. I knew that I needed to answer their questions, yet I felt an incredibly strong urge to shut the conversation down completely, change the subject, and redirect their attention. Why now? I didn’t want to explain any of it, but I knew I had to make a start. I knew we needed to start having conversations about mental health and mental illness.
My experience illustrates how difficult and complicated it can sometimes be on the “adult side” of these conversations.
By the time we reach adulthood, whether we acknowledge it or not, all of us have been personally impacted by a mental health problem at some point, and many of us have experienced the trauma of a mental health crisis within our own families. Adults have also been subjected to the societal stigma that still exists towards mental illness. Consequently, questions from a young person often open old wounds and stir up memories that we’d rather forget. At the same time, there is a powerful instinct to protect the young and vulnerable from whatever pain we, as adults, have experienced. The combination of these two factors, as well as the ever-present social stigma, can cause adults to shut down the conversation altogether.
The urge to end the conversation, to deflect the questions, or even outright lie about the past, can be overwhelming at times--but please don’t. It is understandable, but it is not helpful. None of us can control or predict how or when our lives will be turned upside down by a mental health crisis, but according to the statistics, it’s likely that it will at some point. Too often, genuine efforts to protect and shelter children only end up undermining their confidence and stifling their natural curiosity.
Another piece of my own story, a particularly beautiful piece, is that I grew up in a home where we talked openly about mental health as health, in conversations where my opinion was valued and welcomed.
As a child of two mental health professionals, a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist, conversation about mental health was ordinary, routine, and part of my everyday life. It was impossible to hide my grandfather’s illness and it was openly discussed. My parents often talked about their work; there were endless conversations around the kitchen table, and discussions about mental health were woven into the fabric of family life.
Creating an environment of psychological safety is key to having helpful conversations with anyone about mental health. Normalize talking about it. Foster an atmosphere where curiosity, questioning, and critical thinking are encouraged and rewarded. Praise your children for asking the tough questions, even when you don’t have the answers–or you don’t agree with their point of view. Depending on their age, invite them to do some research with you and find the answers together. Make it ordinary, and it will be that much easier for the young people in your life to open up when they need help with their own mental health.
Going back to that first difficult conversation in the car with my own children, I took a deep breath and steadied myself. I told them they were asking excellent questions that deserved excellent answers. I said something like, "Let’s go inside and talk about it, I need a little bit of time to think about this!”
I reminded myself then, as I have many times since, that my children are not me.
They haven’t had the same life experiences and losing someone to suicide is something I hope they’ll never need to endure. I know they will face unforeseen hurdles and struggles I can’t as yet imagine. I can’t predict their future, but I can help prepare them mentally and emotionally to face those hurdles.
Notes from a Clinician: 7 Ways to Talk to Young People about Mental Health
by Maureen Pollard
How do we create an environment where we can have open conversations about the important and sometimes painful topic of mental health and mental illness? Here are some strategies that can help set you up for success:
1. Build Relationship Credit
Relationship is the key to good conversations. Spend time with your children doing things that interest and engage them. Consider all the special interest facts you’re learning as an investment in your relationship that you can draw on when it comes to being present for the tough conversations. When you’re interested and involved in conversations about the things they like to talk about, they’ll be more ready to believe you want to hear the hard stuff, too.
2. Follow Their Lead:
If they’re asking, do your best to help them find answers. If they’re not asking, but you’re seeing signs that they are struggling or may be curious, don’t be afraid to open the conversation. You can use an example related to the topic you think they might need to talk about to start off. Examples can come from the news, a book or a movie where a character faces a similar challenge.
3. Use Open-Ended Questions:
Ask questions that encourage a detailed answer. If you ask a question and the answer is yes or no, think about how you can rephrase it to elicit more information. Consider using phrases like “Tell me more about that…” Don’t forget to stay present for the answers! Put down that phone, turn off the video and pay attention. No matter how great your open-ended question is, they’ll know if you’re not listening to the answer.
4. Be Prepared for Tough Questions:
Even young children will ask hard questions when there is something happening in their lives that has their attention and cues their natural curiosity. If they wonder about it, and if you’ve created an environment in which they know they can explore their experiences, feelings, and thoughts, they’ll ask you about things that can be very difficult or painful to answer.
If the subject is one that stirs your own emotions, it’s okay to take a time out from the conversation. You can acknowledge that the topic is sensitive and let them know you want to answer their questions in a thoughtful way, which means you need some time to think about your answer. Be sure to return to the conversation when you’re ready – and even if you’re not ready, come back to it once you’ve had some time to compose yourself. If they’re asking about it, it’s important to them and when you make the effort to respond they’ll know you respect their need to know.
6. “I Don’t Know…”
It’s okay to admit that you don’t know everything. Nobody knows everything! If the question has you at a loss, you can commit to finding an answer and letting them know, or you can research it together using the internet, at the library or through talking to a knowledgeable professional like your family doctor or a counsellor.
7. Model Acceptance:
Your children will feel most comfortable speaking to you when they have questions or concerns about mental health and mental illness if you show them that you are compassionate toward people experiencing challenges and illness. If a topic makes you uncomfortable, consider doing some research and learning more about it yourself to increase your comfort level so you’re ready to show your child you accept the reality of life’s diverse challenges and you’re ready to show up to help your child learn, too.
These conversations aren’t easy, but helping our children learn and grow in a way that prepares them to cope with life’s challenges is always worth it.