This is Mental Illness Awareness Week. For some of us, we can’t help but be hyper-aware of mental illness. Our kids, or other family members, or we ourselves have been struggling for a long time now. For others, though, the experience is new. But either way, we share the need for effective communication skills.
When we are the parents of a kid with depression, anxiety, or other forms of MI, a strategy for hard conversations helps move everyone forward toward recovery. Here are a few strategies from mental health professionals:
1) Containerize difficult conversations.
“Set up contained times to talk about it. Phase one is saying something like, ‘As a family we’re going to sit down every night at 7 pm and process, or come with an agenda, or be able to talk about how we’re doing today, what are we worried about, what are we proud about.’ That regularity of time doesn’t have to be every day. It could be once a week. It’s a simple container strategy, but it can make a big difference.”1
2) Avoid ambush.
“It can be really distressing for anybody, children, adults, adolescents, if anybody in the family can bring up a really hard topic at any point. It can feel like you’re walking through this emotional minefield. ‘I can’t completely relax in my own home because I feel like Mom or Dad could pounce on me at any time with a hard conversation.’ Obviously, if the child is symptomatic that’s going to happen, but if I’m just sort of hanging out after school and Mom or Dad has something on their mind from last week or an upcoming appointment, that’s not a conversation that will jump out of nowhere (when using the container strategy). It’s healthy for the parents too. (As a parent) I need to be able to move through my day knowing this topic isn’t going to ambush me at any moment.”2
3) Create a culture of honesty.
Be open with your kids about looking in their rooms or checking their phones and computers. If you need to safeguard them in this way, tell them so, and explain why.
“There’s a point where you’ll say to your child, ‘I love you so much, we’re going to go through your room, not because I don’t trust you, because I love you. I want you to work with me and we’re going to find things that might be a temptation for you to cause yourself harm.’ Some kids, teenagers especially, are going to be very resistant, but just try to do it as reassuringly as possible. You’re going to need to pull out anything that could potentially be a weapon. And anywhere else in the house where there might be things which could be a weapon, you need to make sure that that is locked away from that child at all times.”3
4) Face the hardest topic: suicide.
“You should not be afraid to ask if they’ve thought about suicide. That’s first of all. Most people are afraid to use the word. They think they’ll give the child a suggestion and the child will think, “Oh I never thought about that, but now I’m suicidal.” They’re not going to do that. If they’re not suicidal to begin with, mentioning it is not going to make them suicidal. So don’t worry about that.”4
5) Notice the need of the moment.
All strategies have flaws. There are times when we need to set aside even a healthy communication plan to meet the situation at hand. “But this isn’t a perfect world. Sometimes there will be a lot of chaos and it will be impossible to contain it to another time.”5 If a crisis arises, or you can see your kid needs support right now, then gently explain you are setting aside the usual method in order to help.
Friends, pray with me for our hard conversations:
Lord, You are a God who goes to great lengths to communicate with Your children. You offer us unlimited access to You. You pursue us, but do not attack us. You make it clear that You will work for our good, even in ways that are uncomfortable, but You do it with compassion and wisdom. You call us to face our darkest places. You meet us exactly where we are and minister to our needy souls. Help us to be parents like You. Empower us with Your wisdom, love, and compassion. Amen.
What communication strategies work well for you? What areas of communication do you struggle with? I’d love to hear about your ideas and experiences.
1 Sally Lott Miller, LMFT
3 Tina Yeager, LMHC
5 Sally Lott Miller, LMFT