How Do You Approach the Topic of Mental Health With Children?

How Do You Approach the Topic of Mental Health With Children?

Delving into the delicate subject of mental health with young ones requires tact and expertise, so we've gathered insights from therapy professionals on their best practices. From building rapport to leading by example, discover four engaging and age-appropriate approaches to mental health discussions with children.

  • Build Rapport and Emotional Safety
  • Incorporate Play Therapy and Go Slowly
  • Empower Kids as Emotion Bosses
  • Lead by Example, Normalize Emotions

Build Rapport and Emotional Safety

Working with children in therapy offers clinicians an awesome opportunity to have a positive impact on a child’s mental health. Not only can a clinician assist a child in managing the stressors in their lives and help them heal from traumas they may have suffered, but the clinician can also help to shape the child’s perspective and understanding of what mental health is. Building rapport and establishing a feeling of emotional safety is vital to the work we do with everyone who comes to therapy—especially children. A clinician can approach the topic of mental health in a direct and straightforward manner, identifying all the words we tend to associate with mental health, using easy-to-understand/age-appropriate language, and using the child’s own vernacular to open up a discussion that helps to normalize the mental health issue the child is experiencing. Clinicians can engage in play and/or art activities with the child as they help the child to identify and understand their mental health. Clinicians can also assist the child to understand that their mental health is something that they experience—it is not something that defines who they are.

Inez Salcido-Kasteiner
Inez Salcido-KasteinerLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Soultenders, Inc.

Incorporate Play Therapy and Go Slowly

This can be a very difficult balance to find with clients who are children. I tend to use a combination of play therapy and DBT while focusing on emotion identification. I like to always keep in mind with clients who are children that I may not be doing all the work with them now, and I may just be setting them up for success in the future. This success can come from skills they learn early on, or becoming more in tune with their needs and emotions, or even if they are more comfortable coming back to therapy as they get older. With any therapeutic strategy you are engaging the child with, you want to break down the content and go very slowly. Most therapy concepts can be understood by children if we deliver them the right way and slowly so they can absorb them. This is extra helpful because psychoeducation can act as a preventive measure to future struggles.

Trent Mahler, LCSW
Trent Mahler, LCSWDBT Therapist

Empower Kids as Emotion Bosses

I like to approach the topic of mental health with children by talking about being the boss of our own feelings and behaviors. This lands well with kids because they like being the boss of themselves. They easily understand that sometimes their feelings are in charge and might lead to behaviors they regret. When the child is the boss, they can notice their emotions and make decisions with that awareness. Sometimes the decision might be to use a coping tool to calm or regulate their emotions instead of blowing up, for example.

Lauren Pasqua, PsyD
Lauren Pasqua, PsyDExecutive Director, Connections Child and Family Center

Lead by Example, Normalize Emotions

When it comes to children, I always use a lead-by-example approach. For example, when teaching stress management strategies such as breathwork, I may say something like: "You know what, I am having some big feelings inside; I think I need to breathe. Would you mind doing it with me?" or "Wow, those are some big feelings. When that happens to me, I take some breaths like this, and I really feel better. We could try it together." Through these statements, I am normalizing the child's experience without invalidating their emotions; I'm confirming that it is normal to experience certain emotions because even adults do, and I am taking myself out of an authority position and leveling with the child. This approach allows the child to have control over the interaction, and the perceived control typically results in increased receptiveness to interventions, in my experience.

Taylor Rahe
Taylor RaheOccupational Therapist, TRU Whole Care

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