Imagine you’re at a big family dinner. Someone at the table accidently knocks a glass to the floor, and it shatters. Everyone takes it in stride, but for whatever reason your mother’s mood noticeably changes. For the remainder of the evening, her voice has an edge to it. At some point, she is dismissive of your own child, who is having a hard time understanding why Grandma is so grumpy. You have the sense that the item broken may have been significant, but you aren’t sure – all you know is that it had a big impact on your mother, and she has let it affect how she is engaging with the family for the rest of the evening.

On the drive home, let’s say the child brings it up and you casually say something like, “That’s just Grandma.” Maybe you’re used to her moods knowing she usually recovers. Or maybe you might feel it’s too complicated – or maybe even too much work – to discuss with your child. 

Kids are like sponges, and it’s possible that they took everything in – the sudden shift in grandma’s mood, and your tendency to brush it aside. It’s possible, too, the child may conclude that certain negative emotional reactions from adults are normal, acceptable behaviour, as is not acknowledging them.

While the current culture is open about issues of mental and emotional health, therapy, trauma, and healing journeys, that has not always been the case. In generations past, the shame felt by many who were struggling led to unhealthy coping mechanisms while friends and family navigated their unsettling behaviour in awkward silence.

So, how can parents honour their own parents and grandparents while showing their children better ways of managing their emotions? 

And how can parents who have struggled with their own mental health share their own journey authentically and appropriately with their children?

Luke Campbell, one of Focus on the Family Canada’s counsellors, regularly talks to parents about creating a safe, healthy atmosphere for conversations around mental and emotional health to take place with their children. 

Addressing unhealthy behaviours

Simply acknowledging less-than-ideal behaviour, as in the example with Grandma, can be profoundly helpful for children, says Campbell.

“When emotions run high in an inappropriate or unhelpful way, as a parent you may be doing your family a disservice by refusing to engage with it,” Campbell explains. “Especially if something very explicit is taking place – like a verbal outburst – then we have to talk about it. Sometimes it’s necessary to have a direct conversation with the individual responsible, holding them accountable or setting a boundary for you and your family. While we can’t control others’ behaviour, we can control how we engage with our children over it, helping them to interpret it in a healthier way.

If your children experience something similar, it’s important to debrief what they witnessed so that you don’t contribute to the normalisation of unhealthy emotional regulation. Either in the car ride home or when you’re in a space where you can talk freely, you can follow these steps:

  1. Name it: What was it like for you when Grandma was impatient? Did you think that was a good way for her to respond to the situation? 
  2. Dive a little deeper: Grandma didn’t know what to do with her emotions, and sometimes when we don’t know what to do with our emotions, we get angry or impatient.
  3. Make it personal: When you get angry, what feelings might be under the surface? Sadness? Nervousness? Fear? 
  4. Offer a new behaviour: What could Grandma have done differently? If you were her, what would you have done? What would have been helpful in that situation? 

You can lead your child through these steps any time they witness poor behaviour or outbursts from adults, other children, or even in movies and TV shows they’re watching. By pointing out behaviours that are not okay – and behaviours that are okay – you’re teaching them to spot healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with their big emotions. 

Finding personal healing 

When a child witnesses something overt, the teachable moment is right in front of you. But many of us have internalized behaviours and coping mechanisms from our parents that were neither healthy nor acceptable. So, how can we actively break the cycle of these generational patterns to help our children live healthier lives? 

“The best way of breaking the cycle is becoming self-aware and making sure that you heal from that,” Campbell explains. “You have to tell yourself, ‘Okay, it’s probably pretty likely that I have absorbed some of this behaviour, so I need to make sure to ask if I have the potential to repeat that.’ ”

That’s why it’s so important for parents to take ownership of their own mental and emotional healing. Counselling is a great tool, especially if there is trauma or a struggle to control emotions, but talking with a pastor or even confiding in a trusted group of friends can be valuable ways to improve self-awareness and seek healing. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to be perfect to talk to your children about mental and emotional health. It’s not about if you struggle with anger or anxiety, it’s how you manage those struggles. Your children need to be able to see you making an intentional, daily effort to seek healing and victory so they know they can have victory too. 

“You can’t have a healthy conversation about this topic if you yourself aren’t dealing with managing your own emotions,” Campbell says. “It might actually be more damaging because children might think, Mom and Dad don’t do the things they’re telling me to do. And therefore, they might not take the truths you’re offering them seriously.”

No one is perfect, but by modelling healthy coping mechanisms and asking for help when we need it, our kids will be better equipped to do the same when they run into struggles. 

Being authentic in an age-appropriate way

As you continue to do the work of looking inward and practising self-awareness, you will be in a better place to talk with your child about mental and emotional health. Like having “the sex talk” with kids, it’s much more effective to have regular, ongoing conversations than to have one massive conversation about everything involving mental and emotional health. 

One way you may want to do this is to share from your own journey or the journeys of older family members, but that can be tricky. 

Take Angela* as an example. She wants to create the conversation space that she never had growing up. Her father struggled with bouts of depression that would leave him hospitalized for weeks at a time, but when he’d return, the family never talked about it – they just carried on as if nothing happened. She wants to ensure her children are never left wondering, worried and confused like she was. However, she also knows it’s inappropriate to share every detail of her father’s depression and her own mental health journey. 

Before bringing up specifics around mental health, Campbell explains that it’s important to first know what your unique child is capable of: “Is your kid quiet and sensitive? Are they very perceptive? Some kids will see things and some kids won’t. So, you have to know your kid first of all, and you have to have an understanding of how their brain works.” 

It can be helpful to share authentically from your personal experience, but it’s important to remain age appropriate. Generally speaking, the following scripts can offer guidance on how to share honestly with different age groups:

  • Age 5 and younger: Mom and Dad get big feelings sometimes – like there are anger monsters or worry monsters inside us, and that can feel scary. Do you ever feel like that? When? What do you do? What would help take away the anger and worry monsters?
  • 6-10 years old: Mom and Dad know what it’s like to be upset. Did you know that anger is almost always covering up another kind of emotion? For me, sometimes I’m actually jealous, or sometimes I’m actually afraid. What feelings are under the surface for you? 
  • 11-18 years old: What do you know about mental health? Do you have any questions for Mom and Dad? Everyone gets sad sometimes and everyone gets anxious sometimes, but it’s concerning when we can’t shake ourselves out of it. We can often feel alone when we struggle, but you are never alone. You can always come to us. 

When it comes to sharing other family member’s stories, it’s important to respect their privacy and not overshare with your children. For example, you can say, “Grandma has big feelings, but we know when we have big feelings, there are other ways to express them.” But it’s inappropriate to go into details of Grandma’s childhood or mental health diagnoses if she has not shared those himself. We all have our own stories and it’s our choice to share or not share the details, so when talking about other people, it’s better to focus on the behaviour than the cause. 

When your children become tweens and teens, you can also start to disclose more specifically if you have dealt with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, but Campbell offers a word of warning: 

“A preteen might have a conception of mental health and depression in a clinical sense, and a teenager most undoubtedly does. I think then you can start having more explicit conversations about that – but I do think disclosure can be tricky. You don’t want to get into a position where the kid is caring for you. You want to be that stable presence still and lead them. It comes back to a self-awareness about your own sadness, your own big feelings. You can’t have a healthy conversation of disclosure if you yourself aren’t dealing with those problems and modelling them well.” 

Creating an emotionally safe home 

“As a parent, you want to be engaged with your child’s health and well-being,” Campbell advises. “Counselling can be a great tool for children, tweens and teens to work through mental health questions, but you’re still the most influential person in their young life. And the best way to make sure you’re remaining a positive influence is by being a safe person. 

“Children of any age need to feel safe enough to open up,” Campbell continues. “A lot of parents do this, but for many kids, especially in Christian circles, they may not believe their parents really are safe because those parents never had the access children today do. They might think, I don’t think Mom and Dad really understand what I’m exposed to; they’d be horrified if they knew. So, you may need to explain, very clearly, that nothing they share will surprise you as a parent – and even give examples.”

Furthermore, children of any age need to know that there is nothing that they can tell you that would change how much you love them. By constantly reinforcing this – through words and actions – you can show them a hopeful future where help is available, no matter what they’re going through. 

“To create an open, safe, space, everyday behavioural modelling and consistency is super important,” Campbell explains. “Checking in with your kids and having conversations as they come up – it’s all that space in between.” In doing so, your children will be well-equipped to navigate the ups and downs of mental and emotional health. 

We may never be fully healed from mental and emotional health struggles, but God’s love is continuous and redemptive. He can do incredible things when we come to him and seek help – and our children need to know that’s possible. 

*Name changed to protect privacy

© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox