More and more children are suffering mental health problems.

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By Lucy Dimbylow

Childhood can be difficult to negotiate at the best of times.

And it’s a particular challenge for kids who have mental health issues of their own, or a relative with a mental illness.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in 10 young people has a mental health problem, and 82% of headteachers have reported an increase in issues like anxiety and panic attacks.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in 10 young people has a mental health problem, and 82% of teachers have reported an increase in issues like anxiety and panic attacks.

Many more kids are growing up in homes where a family member has a mental illness. My children, aged six and 11, are just two of them. I have a diagnosis of recurrent depressive disorder, and there’s no question that it’s had an impact on their childhood.

Talking to them about mental health isn’t always easy, but it’s has to be done, so they understand what’s going on when things are bad.

But we shouldn’t be saving these conversations for times of crisis. We all have a duty to talk to our children about mental health, so they can spot the signs in themselves and in others, and know where to turn for help.

So how can we broach such a sensitive subject in a way that raises awareness without frightening them?

Pick your moments

Some children respond well to a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart, but conversations about mental health don’t need to be intense.

Kids will often listen – and open up – more if you chat casually while loading the dishwasher or driving them to their swimming lesson.

Others might prefer to write you a note or send a text. Whatever their style, go with it: the key is to make them feel comfortable enough to talk.

Cover the basics

As parents, we often overthink conversations about mental health and make them more complicated than they need to be.

At the simplest level, kids need to know that brains can get sick, just like bodies. It’s a basic explanation, yes, but my children are now quite accepting of the fact that sometimes, Mummy’s brain goes a bit wrong and the doctors have to help make it better.

Use helpful analogies

I love the ‘broken leg’ analogy. It’s a brilliantly visual way to help children (and adults, for that matter) understand the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s life.

Asking your child questions like, ‘how would you feel if you broke your leg?’, ‘where would you go to get help?’ and ‘what would you find difficult?’ will show them that mental illness is every bit as real and incapacitating as a physical complaint.

Be honest

The first time I was admitted to hospital, we tried to conceal what was happening from our children.

When we did tell them the truth, my son replied, ‘thank goodness. I thought you had cancer.’

I’ve learned that it’s always best to be honest, in an age-appropriate way. Mental illness shouldn’t be a shameful secret, and hiding what’s happening can make them worry more, not less.

Use child-friendly resources

There’s LOADS of brilliant information out there to help kids understand mental illness.

There are some fab books for younger children, like Michael Rosen’s Sad Book and How Are You Feeling Today? by Molly Potter, which can help explain tricky concepts in child-friendly words.

Tackle their worries

Kids who are touched by mental health issues are likely to have a lot of worries and questions, but they need to know that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

It can be treated, and most people get better.

It’s not something they can catch from another person, and above all, it’s not their fault if they or a close relative has a mental illness: parents don’t get sick just because their kids were mean to each other or haven’t tidied their rooms.

Teach them to look out for others

Half of all mental health problems are established before a child is 14, so kids have an important part to play in looking out for their friends.

I’ve encouraged my son to tell me if he’s worried about his mates, and have also explained how sending a quick (text) saying, ‘Are you OK?’ can have a huge impact if someone is struggling.

Tell them where to find help

I’d love to think my kids would come to me if they had a mental health problem or were worried about a friend, but realistically, we parents can be the last to know.

It’s really important that children know where else they can turn for help, whether that’s a friend, a trusted teacher or a helpline such as ChildLine.

And reassure them that you won’t be cross if they don’t talk to you, as long as they talk to someone.

Make sure they feel loved

We all need to feel loved, but children, like adults, have their own different ‘love languages’. Some love a cuddle; others would rather spend half an hour in the park playing Frisbee with you.

What really matters is that you tap into what makes your child tick.

If they feel loved, valued and safe, they’ll be more likely to be honest with you, and become part of the new generation who can speak up openly about mental illness.