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Talking about brain health with kids.

Emotions exercise with students from Carver Elementary in Dubuque, IA.

As an author and illustrator, I get the amazing opportunity to go into my community and discuss "brain health" with elementary students. Here's why you should do the same in your homes with your kids.

The intangibility of the word "mental" makes the term "mental health" hard for kids to grasp. However, children understand what a brain is and what it does. By renaming mental health to brain health, we give kids a better chance of understanding what we're trying to say when we start the conversation about mental health, anxiety, or depression. But why start the conversation now?

At school and at home, kids learn how to keep their bodies healthy, but somehow brain health goes by the wayside. It may be because of its complicated nature, or simply because it hasn't traditionally been part of that conversation. We tend to think of mental illness as a "grown up" issue, but anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders do not discriminate. Mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders begin in early childhood effecting 1 in 6 children ages 2-8 years of age (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). We can't neglect our responsibility to talk about brain health with our kids. Many of them are experiencing complicated emotions now, and need our help in navigating their feelings!

When I introduce brain health to kids, I try to simplify it and make it fun. It doesn't have to be a serious, scary conversation! Here are my two steps to building and maintaining a healthy brain, kid style:

  1. Understand the things that make you feel good or bad. I like to let kids practice this one, for their entertainment (and often for mine too! Kids really do say the darnedest things...). I invite them to tell me what makes them happy to which I get answers like, "getting to chew 4 pieces of gum at once," or "birthday parties that have birthday cupcakes instead of cake." I go through all the emotions in my book—happy, sad, silly, and anxious—and give them the opportunity to share their experiences with me. I then emphasize the importance of understanding the things in their lives that make them feel the way they feel. That way, if they are feeling down, they can remember what makes them feel better.

  2. Talk about your feelings with people you trust. This is the really important one. To make this step more exciting and entertaining for kids, I perform a silly skit where I pretend to be a sad elementary student that tells her mom about her problems. As I talk about my feelings, I relax a little bit and start to feel better. The goal is to illustrate how therapeutic communication can be when we're feeling emotional! I also point out that it's good to talk about all our emotions, not just the bad ones. After all, if we have something exciting happen to us, our positive attitudes can be contagious!

Using these tips as a starting point to discussing brain health with your children can help jumpstart your child's ability to manage their emotions, and can give you a better insight into how they are feeling.

To purchase my book to help start the conversation with your child, click here.


*I am not a mental health professional. I am simply a mental health advocate. If you or your child is suffering from depression, anxiety or any mental health disorder, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional for guidance. I did, and it was one of the best things I ever did for myself!

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