What age is appropriate to begin the conversation on mental health?
My answer: it is never too early to start the conversation.
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding wellness conversations are that you only need to have the conversation once. Like various other wellness and safety conversations, mental health conversations are not a one-time sit-down dialogue when your child reaches a certain age. These conversations should begin at birth.
What do you mean conversations should begin at birth?
Communication can occur in different ways. For example, when a baby is crying, providing support by holding the baby close to your heart, softly singing, or gently rocking them can be not only soothing but also let the baby know they are not alone. Another example would be allowing the baby to scream and cry (as recommended by doctors for the baby’s age) can also teach the baby that it is okay to express their emotions. Then, as your child continues to grow up, providing safe space to express their emotions without judgement is extremely important.
When a child is in grades K-2, these are core years in emotional health. This is when we often begin invalidating and gaslighting them. Although the problems and stressors children face may seem “small” or “insignificant” to us as adults, they are still very real and very difficult for children. By shutting down children when they begin to cry or get upset with phrases like:
- People are dying.
- Big girls do not cry.
- Stop acting like a girl.
- You are acting like a baby.
- You are being dramatic.
- Stop crying.
We are communicating that their feelings are not important, and thus, they should suppress them. Then, as they get older, we often build upon that same destructive message.
In grade school (3-5), we often use phrases like “You are not 5 anymore, grow up” when children express themselves. Often times, we do not pay attention to the drama or problems they are facing, because elementary school bullying builds character and thicker skin. Essentially, we teach them that it is okay for people to be mean to them and it is wrong for them to speak up for themselves.
By middle schools, when gossip and bullying are at an all time high, when children are beginning to explore or understand their sexuality, when their bodies are changing, they are extremely impressionable. This is a key age for self-esteem. However, we often invalidate their problems by saying, “Do not let it bother you. This won’t matter in 5 years.” Essentially, we are teaching them that their feelings do not matter.
Then, we get to high school, where life becomes complicated. Many kids are experiencing or have experienced first love and first heartbreak, grief and trauma of losing loved ones, extreme pressure on grades and SAT scores, stress to decide the trajectory of their life by choosing a college and a major, puberty, bullying, and the list goes on. Instead of having healthy wellness check-ins, we are piling more and more on to their plates with impossibly high expectations.
Then, we see suicide is the second leading cause of death from ages 10-35 in the United States, and we ask ourselves why.
Why is the suicide rate so high among our youth?
Here’s why: we are invalidating them, subconsciously teaching them to suppress their emotions, meanwhile refusing to engage in important conversations.
Imagine if in K-2, we taught kids that it is normal to have feelings AND that all feelings are valid. Imagine if we taught them there are different ways to express their emotions, such as through speaking, drawing, writing, or music.
Imagine if in 3-5, we taught kids what mental health is on a scale from wellness to illness. Imagine if we explained that sometimes, we may move along the scale as the day goes on, and that is normal to not always be happy.
Imagine if in 6-8, we taught kids about early symptom detection. Imagine if we gave them the tools and resources needed to explore their symptoms and emotions, while developing tools to cope with them. Imagine if by the time kids were 13 years old, they understood how to advocate for themselves and their mental health. Imagine if they knew the right questions to ask themselves and their doctors.
Imagine if in 9-12, we taught kids about suicide prevention. Imagine if we taught kids how to have supportive and validating conversations with their peers, as well as warning signs to look out for with themselves and with each other. Imagine if we educated them on various mental illnesses and resources available to them.
Imagine if by the time one graduates from high school, they have all of the tools and resources needed to maintain emotional wellness and cope with life’s stressors and traumas. Imagine if we set the next generation up for success in life, rather than throwing them into the world with no real understanding of mental health or how to maintain it.
So, when should we have the conversation? Every. Single. Day.