Discussing Mental Health With Children

Medically reviewed by: Erika McElroy, Ph.D.
Monday, March 21 2022

Many parents might say it’s easier to talk about the birds and the bees than the brain. Starting a conversation about mental health can feel awkward or intimidating. And for good reason: mental health isn’t the easiest thing to bring up, especially when you might be worried about your child.

One thing today’s parents of young kids and teens have going for them is that Gen Z is more open than any other generation about their mental health needs. According to the American Psychological Association, Gen Z is the least likely to say their mental health is excellent or very good, compared to other generations. On the flip side, Gen Z is also the most likely to receive help from a psychologist or other mental health professional. 

Gen Z is honest. And the truth is, an open conversation about mental health can reduce stigma and help your child understand what’s going on with them and that you care. 

Start first by looking for signs. Is there a change in your child’s behavior? Do they seem more withdrawn or less interested in activities they used to participate in? A noticeable change in their behavior could mean that it is time to have a conversation with them. 

Before the conversation: take time to plan ahead

Plan what you want to say. This might seem obvious, but planning what you want to say is an important step — even if it is just one phrase or intentional question. Remember that this is just the beginning of your open door of communication. If you don’t say everything you plan for, that’s okay, too. But having a plan will make it easier for you to follow through and communicate effectively.

Seek counsel. It can feel like you’re on your own as a parent, but you’re not. Seek support from someone who knows your child. Talk with your partner, a family member, or your pediatrician if you notice something feels “off.” Sometimes an outside opinion can help you gain clarity. A teacher, counselor, or school nurse might be able to help you with additional resources or offer context to your child’s behavior.

Pick a time and place that fosters safety. Think about if your child would respond better to a casual, short conversation or if you will need to plan time for a longer, more thorough  conversation. In either scenario, it’s best to pick a time when you can foster psychological safety and there will be limited distractions. 

During the conversation: stay engaged and supportive

Reflect and share honestly. Share your reflections with your child in a way that makes them feel loved and that you are speaking from the heart. Remember that what you say matters — so try your best to set a tone that withholds judgment. If your child expresses guilt or shame for their feelings, you can remind them that their mental health is not their fault. When possible, you might even use science-based language to describe what is happening (think of how you might describe a physical ailment or illness).

Be prepared to answer tough questions. If you’re going to ask questions, your child might ask questions back like, “Have you ever been depressed?” or “Do you know what anxiety feels like?” Be sure you’re in a clear headspace to talk about your own mental health journey. Know what you are and are not willing to share in advance.

Be engaged. Being engaged means active listening. To actively listen, you refrain from interrupting, and you offer plenty of time for your child to think and respond throughout the conversation. You’re focused on what they say, and you might even restate what they say or ask open-ended questions if appropriate.

Prepare to take action. How will you close out the conversation? Talk with your child to create a plan of action (if necessary) and follow up goals or ideas that you can help with. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health care, and what works for one child might not work for another. 

Have resources readily available. Unfortunately, suicide and self-harm rates are rising among teens and kids. Talking about these topics might seem scary, but it is an important (and sometimes life-saving) part of some dialogues. If you think your child may have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, identify local resources you can offer your child. You can also access these emergency resources, which are usually available 24/7.

After the conversation: focus on meaningful follow up

Remind them this is not a one-time thing. Assure your child that you are there for them and that you don’t want this to be a one-time conversation.

Follow up. Check in with them again (when it feels right) and see how they’re doing. Ask them if they need any resources or have had any more thoughts about that last conversation. Be available to support them. 

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach

These tips are intended to help you create a plan to talk with your child about their mental health. Keep in mind that age and maturity play a big role in how you approach the topic. There is no perfect outline for your conversation and what works for one family might not work for another. 

And most of all, remember that you don’t have to do this alone. There is support and resources available for you. A licensed mental health professional can help you assess your child’s symptoms and work with you on a treatment plan that’s right for them.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency, do not use this site. Instead, call 911 or use one of these emergency resources.

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