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Talking To Children & Teens When They Need Help
Updated May 9, 2017 6:44 AM | Filed under: Health
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(INDIANAPOLIS) - May is National Mental Health Awareness Month.

The Indiana Psychological Association and the American Psychological Association offer tips to help parents and caregivers recognize the signs of mental illness and emotional distress in their children.

Approximately one in five children ages 13-18 have or will have a serious mental illness, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.

When kids experience difficulties, it's important that they feel comfortable going to their parents or other trusted adults for help. Some children and teens may keep their feelings inside. If something is troubling them, they may not speak up and ask for help. Sometimes, kids don't realize that help is available. As the first line of support, parents must be able to have open conversations about feelings so they can identify when their children are struggling emotionally.

"As a parent of two young children, we've tried to establish open lines of communication from Day 1 by providing a comfortable environment for our children to discuss and learn about their feelings and by trying to set a good example ourselves," says Dr. Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist in Indianapolis.

Getting kids to open up and talk can be a challenge, but the following tips can help start a conversation.

Talk about feelings from an early age. Parents and caregivers should use language that is appropriate for the age and development of their child. Help them learn to name their emotions. Let children know that people can experience all kinds of emotions and it is ok- it's what they do with the emotions that matters.

Make them feel safe. Put kids at ease so they feel comfortable opening up. It is essential to make it clear why the conversation is happening, as kids can be fearful that they may be in trouble or are being punished if they are pulled aside to talk. Parents and caregivers might consider creating a time to talk one-on-one on a regular basis, such as a weekly lunch or after school snack.

Listen to them. Take the time to actively listen to what children and teens have to say. Many times, all kids want is someone who will listen. Try to understand their perspective before offering suggestions. It's not necessary to try to fix everything. In many cases the best help is to listen attentively.

Be Genuine. Try to avoid speaking from a script. Kids can tell when you're not being genuine. Be open, authentic and relaxed to help them do the same.

Affirm and support their need for help. It's ok for children to express sadness or anger. Normalize those feelings by telling them you're proud of them for sharing their feelings. Let them know how courageous it was for them to trust an adult for help. If it seems like they need more help than you can provide, consult with an appropriate professional. It might be best to start by talking to the school psychologist.

Don't be afraid to say I don't know. As a caregiver, it is ok to admit that you don't have all the answers. However, if a child asks a question, make every effort to find an answer or someone who can help.

Dr. Dattilo agrees. "The most important thing to do when your child opens up to you is to validate what they are feeling, no matter what. You don't have to agree or understand why to express support. By saying something empathic and heartfelt like, "Wow. That must have been really rough" or even something as simple as: "I hear you" can send a powerful message of non-judgment, which only increases the likelihood that they will open up to you again in the future. Teaching our children about their feelings by giving them the opportunity to talk about them often will help give them the skills they need to cope with difficult emotions for the rest of their lives."

To learn more about mind/body health, visit the American Psychological Association at and follow @APAHelpCenter. To find out more about the Indiana Psychological Association visit and follow @IN_Psych_Assoc.

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