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Importance of Discussing Genetics and Mental Health with Children

Mental health is complicated. It is shaped by each person’s individual environmental and experiential situations. Genetics can also play a role in the way our brains process the world around us, so it’s important to be aware of mental health disorders that may appear in our biological families. Ever wondered what the connection is between genes and psychology? How do we even begin the discussion of genetics and mental health with our families?

Mental Health Factors

Mental health disorders are caused by a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. The 25-cent term for this is multifactorial inheritance. We see this type of inheritance in medical disorders like type 2 diabetes, asthma, and obesity. This means that these disorders do not follow typical (meaning dominant or recessive) patterns of inheritance and that there is more than just the genetics that lead to the expression of the symptoms.

Some environmental factors which contribute to the development of mental health disorders include:

However, these environmental factors alone do not necessarily cause mental health disorders. It is the combination of genetics and the way in which a person reacts to environmental factors (called epigenetics) that contributes to the development of mental health disorders.

Having said this, there are certain mental health disorders that are noted to be more highly heritable (influenced by genetics). For instance, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism are highly heritable. So, if you have a first degree relative (meaning parent, full sibling, or child) with one of these disorders the chance of developing this disorder is markedly increased.

Importance of Awareness and Conversation

Knowing your family health history is a critical piece of your health. Sharing this valuable information with your family is part of comprehensive healthcare for your children. When we are aware of mental health disorders that are present in first- and second-degree relatives, we can be more attuned to possible signs in ourselves and our children.

In addition, there is evidence that treatments and medications that are particularly effective in a first-degree relative, are more likely to be effective for us or our children. Also, having discussions with family members about mental health helps to decrease stigma that is often attached to these disorders and create a supportive environment for everyone involved.

How Do We Talk About It?

Discussing family mental health with children can feel uncomfortable. As with most challenging topics, discussing mental health with your child isn’t a one-time thing; it’s a process. Information is best delivered consistently, using age-appropriate vocabulary and allowing children to ask questions if they want more information.

Using terms like “mental health” as opposed to “mental illness” can be helpful for communicating that your mind is just another part of your body. It is something we want to take care of and check on a regular basis, just like we do with physical health.

By talking about our mental health, we teach children that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. The same way we may let a child know that we have a headache and need to lie down for a few minutes to take care of our health, we can teach children that when we feel stressed or nervous, we take a few deep breaths or listen to some music to take care of our mental health.

As children get older, we can start discussing measures we or other family members take to care for our mental health like therapy, medication, or other interventions.

When there are mental health disorders that run in the family, we may want to be more sensitive to how our kids are handling stressful situations and challenges. Consider reaching out to a mental health provider sooner if there is a particularly major stressor that has occurred.

If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support!

About the Expert

Dr. Jennifer Petras is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist with PM Behavioral Health. Her specialties include teaching medication management to providers from different disciplines and working with families and youth with ADHD, anxiety, depression and behavioral difficulties. Dr. Petras completed her undergraduate education at Binghamton University and her medical training at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She completed her Triple Board Residency and Fellowship at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.