We discuss the importance of starting mental and emotional health conversations with children from a young age, highlighting the benefits for their emotional development and future stability and happiness.

In today’s episode, Rebecca Rolland, a Harvard lecturer and author, emphasizes that these discussions should be ongoing and developmentally appropriate, focusing not only on negative emotions but also on the positive aspects of mental health to build resilience and empathy.

Rolland encourages openness and adaptability in these talks, reassuring children they have support and an open line of communication for any emotional challenges they may face.

“Just as children are constantly developing over time in, say, their ability to read, their ability to tie their shoes and do physical things, we want to think about them as developing emotions and emotional vocabulary. We wouldn’t tell a 6- or 7-year-old, well, let’s talk about the nuances of depression in the same way we would do that with a teenager. That wouldn’t make sense to them because they don’t necessarily have a framework for that.” ~Rebecca Rolland, EdD

Rebecca Rolland, EdD

Rebecca Rolland is the author of The Art of Talking with Children (HarperOne, 2022), a book designed to support educators, parents, and caregivers in enhancing their interactions with children. She is a nationally certified speech-language pathologist who has worked clinically with populations ranging from early childhood through high school and provided teacher professional development. She teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Medical School. She served as the Academic Learning Specialist at Kingsley Montessori School and as an Oral and Written Language Specialist in the Learning Disabilities Team at Children’s Hospital Boston. She has an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions, and a B.A. in English from Yale

Gabe Howard

Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.

To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Hey, thanks for listening, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard. Calling in today, we have Rebecca Rolland. Rebecca is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School. She’s also the author of the new book, “The Art of Talking to Children.” Rebecca, welcome to the podcast.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Gabe Howard: You are very, very welcome. Now, there was a line from the description of your book, “The Art of Talking to Children,” that jumped out at me. That line was, quote, “This book arms adults with practical tools to help them have productive and meaningful conversations with children of all ages. Whether it’s engaging an obstinate toddler or getting the most monosyllabic adolescent to open up,” unquote. What struck me wasn’t the part about adolescence. There are lots of books on getting your teenagers to talk to you. You specifically discuss communication strategies with toddlers. Is this something that parents need? Isn’t talking to a toddler one size fits all?

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Definitely not. So really, even as young as babies and infancy, we can think about noticing, for example, temperament in children and being responsive to how our individual and unique kids are. So really, we can start as soon as kids are born with noticing the differences in how they communicate.

Gabe Howard: You can probably tell by that last question that I myself don’t have children, and I’m pretty sure that the parents listening are completely on board with the idea that toddlers have different personalities.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Exactly.

Gabe Howard: Now we could we could frame this discussion around any number of conversations we want to have with our little ones. But this is a mental health and psychology podcast, so let’s just start there. Many people, many parents feel that young children, preschoolers, or even elementary kids are simply too young to grasp concepts like emotions or mental health. Is it even possible to talk to young children about this? Is there even a point to trying with the six and under crowd?

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Yeah. So in my research and my work with children, I’ve really seen how much they are already processing all the information around them about the mental health of their environments, of the people around them. And the more language they have, the more ways they have of actually describing and labeling and expressing their emotions and noticing the emotions of others, actually, the better they are able to regulate themselves, and also the more likely they are to be mentally healthy over the long term. So I think this is something that we really need to start with early on, and obviously in different and more concrete terms than we would start with an adolescent, but it’s no less important.

Gabe Howard: It’s always very fascinating to me because let’s go ahead and use sex ed as an example for a moment. Now, I’m not trying to start a controversy, but there’s two schools of thought. One side believes that you should start talking to your children about sex immediately. For example, refer to a penis as a penis and a vagina as a vagina. Don’t make up nicknames like hoo-has and willies, for example. Now the other side is like no, no, no no no no no no no no no no no. You should not talk about sex until they’re into puberty. Now both sides are not only warring in public discourse, but it makes its way into court cases and school board cases and even Supreme Court cases. Now, moving this back to emotions and mental health, we don’t really have as robust of a debate in those circles as we do in the sexual education circles. But nevertheless, there’s still a debate because there’s a lot of adults listening who are like, look, let’s just let them be kids. Why are we trying to worry them with their emotions? Why are we trying to scare them? Why are we trying to introduce them to these difficult concepts? Just let them be happy-go-lucky. They’re going to grow up and the world is going to beat them down eventually. But you feel that there’s a protective factor in starting these mental health and emotion conversations early.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Definitely. Yeah. So I do think there is a difference between conversations that simply ruminate, so that really do just introduce problems to children without solutions and just dive down into sadness, for example, or into guilt or depression and don’t offer solutions. I think those kinds of conversations can be really hurtful to young children, especially. So I do want to caution that I’m not saying, oh, we should just talk, you know, nonstop about mental illness factors or anything like that with young children. But I also think there’s a very big misconception that not talking about things somehow protects children from either understanding it or knowing about it, or even thinking about it. So what we actually know is that children are thinking about these things all of the time. They’re recognizing things that are happening in their world, and without actually having words or having someone as an adult to help them process, they’re making assumptions about what they see. And a lot of times those assumptions may be wildly inaccurate, they might be distorted, or they might even be very dangerous to their own mental health. For example, if they see someone who’s having a bad day and the person is maybe crying or feels teary, um, they might jump to the conclusion, you know, I caused this. I’ve seen this a lot in my own work of, you know, I caused my parents to feel upset in this way. Or, for example, this parent is going to feel like this forever. Um, this is something that’s going to be permanent. Um, they don’t necessarily say that out loud if they don’t have the chance to express their fears. Um, but the problem is, without any kind of opportunities to process, we’re really leaving kids at the mercy of these assumptions and these misconceptions. Um, so I think it is so important as a protective factor to actually understand where kids are coming from and how they are perceiving these factors, and then actually do a deeper dive in supporting them and understanding what’s really going on.

Gabe Howard: Thank you for clarifying that. Look, we’re not trying to scare children, but we do have to start somewhere educating them about their emotional and mental well-being. And it’s better to start small. If we go back to the sex education example, day one is not the conversation about intercourse and STDs.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Exactly.

Gabe Howard: It’s just things like using the correct terms for body parts, teaching kids that these things are not shameful. But even if you start small, some parents are going to be nervous or scared. Is that okay? And does it make sense? Many parents are worried that they will say the wrong things.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Yes. I mean, it’s certainly natural to be scared and to not, not want to do things. But I think what’s really important to keep in mind is that children are always noticing kind of what our taboo subjects and what I found to be very helpful, actually, is to raise that a bit to the surface and actually to tell children, even sometimes younger children, you know, this is something that’s hard for me to talk about or I’m not quite sure how to tell you of this, but this is going to be my best effort. You might have questions. This might be confusing to you. Um, if it is, I’m really open to questions. I’m really open to trying it again. Um, and really thinking about this as an evolving series of conversations. Um, a lot of the parents I’ve worked with, they feel as if, oh, I have to get it right. So, it has to be the right words or the right time. And I really try to get beyond that and feel as though, well, maybe it doesn’t have to be the right time. Maybe it doesn’t have to be the right words. Um, that these things can kind of come in dribs and drabs and that children can take their time, and oftentimes they need their time to process this and to come back to you with questions. So I would say the most important thing in these conversations is not so much the words that you’re saying, but really that open door of saying, well, we are open to having these conversations, we’re willing to have them, and there’s not a stigma around them. So when you have questions, I want you to come to me.

Gabe Howard: I love that you keep framing this as an ongoing conversation. Again, to go back to our sex ed analogy. Everybody has that moment where we had the birds and the bees talk, right where our parents sat us down. They explained it all once and then we never spoke of it again. And I think a lot of people think that’s how the mental health talk is supposed to go, that you sit it down, you rush through all of the information, maybe you hand them a book and then you’re done with it. Maybe they’ll learn some in school, maybe they’ll learn some from their friends. But what you’re specifically saying is, no, this is just an open and honest conversation that will go on through their entire childhood and into their adulthood. And of course, we’ll also snowball and start including more and more people, because we just want to normalize talking about our emotions, our mental health. Is that really the big message? Did I uncover the secret?

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Yeah, that definitely is the big message. I think if we could get to the point where, you know, at dinner we’re talking not just about, you know, what happened to you today or what was your call about today, but really talking freely about how our emotional lives went. I think that would be ideal. I think not just say, oh, how sad were you feeling? But really, if we can just have this as an everyday, ongoing conversation that’s open among the people in the family and really understanding that the empathy and sort of connection comes through those conversations, um, that I think could go a long way toward dealing with a lot of the isolation and sense of sort of aloneness that a lot of kids and teenagers are feeling today. Um, and I think a lot of them do feel as though, for example, oh, my parents want me to be happy. Um, which obviously we do want our kids to be happy, but sometimes that can feel to kids so overwhelming as to feel a bit like a burden. Like I need to be happy for my parents. So if we can kind of tone that down a little bit and get at the sense that children might feel, oh, I don’t have to be happy, I maybe would like to be happy some of the time, but it’s not as though it’s a requirement for my family to feel good. I think that would be really healthy for everyone.

Gabe Howard: How important is it, Rebecca, for parents and adults to model this behavior? Because I, I think that is going to be difficult for a lot of people. I mean, it’s not exactly unheard of for adults to not understand their own mental health or to struggle with their own emotions.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Yes, I think that’s one thing that we really need to keep in mind, is that it all starts with us and actually our own emotional vocabulary, as well as our comfort with ourselves, experiencing and welcoming a range of emotions. So I think if we’re not comfortable feeling and expressing that, we’re sad without feeling, oh, that’s a shameful thing, or oh, that’s something I need to push away, then we’re certainly not likely to feel the same with our children or with the children in our lives. So I think it is so important when we have these conversations to realize that it all starts with our own comfort, and then modeling with a range of emotions and really feeling like we can talk about the fact that we had a hard day or we were sad or this is something that is very shocking to us or upsetting to us without feeling as if we have to be in this sort of toxic positivity mode of everything is happy and we’re always happy all the time.

Gabe Howard: I think it’s very important that listeners hear your knowledge drives children’s knowledge, because I think about my own emotional upbringing. I’m 46 years old, I grew up in the 80s, and my dad is one of those people that doesn’t really like to talk about emotions and believes that any issue that befalls a man can be solved by rubbing mud on it. So this

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: [Laughter]

Gabe Howard: Is what I absorbed. So when I was sad, I didn’t want to cry because the phrase I’ll give you something to cry about was a big deal in my household. All of this did not help me have the language to discuss what ultimately led to a bipolar diagnosis in my mid-twenties, and my parents feel really, really badly about that. And I share that story, not to shame my parents, but because when they had the benefit of hindsight, they’re like, oh wow, we should have really done things differently. We should have given you tools because the ball that they dropped really put their son, me, at risk.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Mm-hmm.

Gabe Howard: The fact is, is that mental health and emotions are scary and we want our children to be ready. How do we prepare our little ones for that?

Sponsor Break

Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing how to talk to kids under the age of six about emotions and mental health with the author of “The Art of Talking to Children,” Rebecca Rolland.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: What we really need to think about is, well, how do we set the foundation for a healthy emotional life early on? And this includes the positive side as well as the negative side. Sometimes, even when children are really excited and really happy, they can feel somewhat lonely in that because they don’t actually have the emotional vocabulary to describe that. So it doesn’t always have to be only a discussion of negative emotions. We can actually think about, well, how can we help children empathize and understand others positive emotions as well? How do we help them celebrate other’s successes? Um, how do we help them feel sort of mixed emotions and talk about mixed emotions. For example, a combination of feeling glad for your friend who succeeded at something and maybe a little bit jealous as well. Um, and when we think about developing these nuances, what we’re really doing is setting the stage for helping them talk with us as they get older about the challenges they’re facing and about the ways that they might be having harder emotions. And this really does help them bond with us, but it also opens them up to actually feeling much more competent to handle their own emotional lives than they would otherwise. So I think we really need to think about it as a stage and setting a foundation, rather than as sort of dumping lots on them at once.

Gabe Howard: If you’re only teaching children that mental health is bad, then they will not recognize good mental health. And you just brought up that we’ve got to talk about positive mental health as well. And I think a lot of listeners will consider that discussion to be a much easier lift. Rebecca, let’s switch gears ever so slightly here. The parents who reach out to me the most as a mental health advocate that want to have these discussions with their children, are because a family member has been diagnosed with a mental illness. And I think of my own family. I live with bipolar disorder. So therefore, my family is trying to figure out, okay, when do we tell Gabe’s nieces and nephews? Because they’re young. Should we burden a two-year-old? Should we tell a six-year-old? And we had to navigate this largely by ourselves because my youngest niece is eight, and there just wasn’t a lot of writing on the subject for young children. And what we ultimately decided was just, hey, we’re just going to, pardon the pun, go nuts and just share everything. And it’s worked out really, really well. But I’d like to hear your answer. What is the way? Because my sister, for example, and I’m grounding this in my own family, very specifically my sister, for example, she always she never wanted to hide it because obviously she doesn’t want to make me feel bad. But she also was concerned about the understanding and the safety and the mental health of her daughter. So, this this handcuffed her a little bit before we ultimately just decided to go all in. What is the correct decision there? What should families do when they have a loved one who lives with mental illness, and they also have young children in the same family?

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Yeah. So, I think this is such an important conversation, and I’m so glad you grounded it in your specific family situation, because I ultimately think that’s exactly what we need to do, is not think that there is a one size fits all answer to this question. I’ve seen some families say, oh, at two years old, what do you do at five years old? What do you do? And it’s so dependent, I think, on what your family culture is, what the comfort level is and what the understanding and need for that information is for, say, a two-year-old, a five-year-old or a six-year-old. In some families say, if a two-year-old isn’t seeing this family member very much and doesn’t know them very well, it could feel very alienating to start with that conversation. Um, then that person could potentially maybe the child say, fears the meeting the person if they’ve really never met. Um, but it’s a very different conversation. For example, if the two-year-old has already started to notice certain things and really wants to know, well, what? Why is my relative acting this way, or when there are questions that start to bubble up? So for me, what it goes back to is really being adaptive to your family situation and noticing, um, what seems to be on a child’s mind? What is the child already experiencing? Um, and not feeling as though one way of doing it is sort of quote unquote bad or good? That can be the biggest challenge when we start to feel as if, oh, we have to go all in and say, force it, even if a child isn’t ready.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Or the alternative, which is just we really shouldn’t say anything, even if our child has multiple questions. Um, and I think it’s very similar in some ways, um, for young children in who are learning how to read. Um, so it’s a kind of a very different subject, but I’ve seen, say, two- and three-year-olds who are constantly asking, you know, could you tell me what this word is? What does that say? What is this? You know, what does this sound? What is this letter? Um, and if you said, for example, oh, you shouldn’t be learning to read at this age, I’m not going to teach you. You would really be doing that child a disservice. So you’re not actually responding to their innate curiosity. Um, and at the same time, if you were to take the average 2- or 3-year-old and sit them down with a phonics workbook every day for an hour, that also wouldn’t be responsive. Um, so I think it really is finding that balance for your own family.

Gabe Howard: That is really great advice because every kid and every family is different. But when it comes to discussing emotional health and mental health with children under six, do you have any other advice? Is there anything to fear? Is there anything that parents need to be worried about? Is there? Is there any pitfalls to dodge or landmines that parents need to avoid stepping on? I, I know that parents tend to be super, super cautious about this, and I want to make sure that we are arming them with all of the information that they need.


Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Yes. I think the one thing I would say to be careful of and cautious of is just what message you’re leaving children with. Um, is it a message, say, of hopefulness, of the sense that you can find support, that we can get through this, that you are resilient? Um, or is it something that’s more ruminating and sort of left open ended and, you know, oh, there’s no solution or, oh, you just deal with that on your own. I think if we can be very cognizant of the fact that children do need support in an ongoing way throughout their lives, and that that support is going to change as they change. Um, I think that can be really critical just to let children know, you know, I’m always here for you, no matter what your emotions are. You can tell me them. Um, and we can find support for them. I think that message can really cover any emotions or even any mental health diagnoses or needs. As long as we make sure that we do leave that open door so kids don’t feel seen, and they feel as though we will find a way through this together. Um, and creating that partnership with a child is so powerful because then no matter what they’re feeling, they feel as though, okay, at least I have this person I can turn to.

Gabe Howard: We are almost out of time, Rebecca. And this next question is, well, let’s just slightly off topic, but I am really, really curious. Does discussing mental and emotional health with children increase their empathy towards others, or does it really have no impact whatsoever?

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Yeah. So it actually really does increase their empathy. And part of the reason is simply that empathy involves three parts. Um, so there’s the sort of mental or rational part which is taking another person’s perspective. There’s the emotional part, which is really sort of feeling into the other person’s emotions, whether they’re positive or negative or in between. Um, and then there’s what we call compassionate action, which is feeling another person’s emotions and then being moved to take an action that helps. Um, and this is really an interesting thing for me, because when I think about compassionate action, we think about moving beyond just being helpful and actually being helpful specifically to the person in front of you. So actually knowing the mystery of the person in front of you well enough to support them. And so when we can do that, you can see how if another person feels known and understood and you, as a result, feel more known and understood through your language, you’re going to feel more connected to that person, more bonded to that person. You might not necessarily feel happier, but do you feel as though you’re able to discuss your emotions and to get support, um, get feedback and encouragement from that person much more easily than you would have otherwise.

Gabe Howard: Rebecca, thank you so much for being here. Our listeners and myself, we really, really appreciate it. Where can folks find you online and where can they get your book?

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Yeah, you can find me online at my website, which is just RebeccaRolland.com. There you can order my book or you can also find it on Amazon. I also write a blog for Psychology Today so you can find my blog on their website as well.

Gabe Howard: Thank you again for being here.

Rebecca Rolland, EdD: Thanks for having me.

Gabe Howard: Well, you are very welcome, Rebecca. And a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard, and I’m an award-winning public speaker, and I could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon, but you can also get a signed copy with free show swag, or learn more about me by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe. It is absolutely free and can you do me a favor? Share the show, recommend it to people. Do it in a support group. Do it on social media. Hell, send a text message. Sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

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