How to Talk to Your Kids About Mental Health

Talking to your kids about their feelings can be downright awkward. They may be reluctant or don’t know how to speak about what they’re feeling inside. But these are some of the most important conversations you can have with your child. More than one in five teens has had a mental health disorder that causes impairment in their ability to function. But there are ways that parents can spot early warning signs and help address their child’s needs.

“While there is still much to learn, we know more now about how to accurately diagnose and effectively treat pediatric mental health concerns,” says Nancy Cunningham, Psy.D., Nationwide Children’s Hospital Big Lots Behavioral Health Services. “Early identification and intervention are key to addressing symptoms, promoting a child’s development, and helping a child to live a happier and healthier life.”

If you sense your child is struggling, Cunningham says the first step is to encourage them to talk – and that starts with establishing trust. Starting these difficult conversations with kids at an early age makes it easier as they grow older. Here, she provides tips for approaching difficult topics and initiating a healthy rapport with your child that will last a lifetime.

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Model Openness

Share your feelings, challenges, successes and failures with your child in a way that is age appropriate. By doing so, you’ll demonstrate to them that it’s safe to talk about their own feelings and challenges. Try these conversation starters from Nationwide Children’s Hospital if you need help.

Meet Them Where They Are

Quality time with your child is important. However, when you are ready to talk may be different than when your child is ready to talk to you. Plan activities together that you know they enjoy. Go to a movie, throw a frisbee or shop. While you’re together, look for opportunities to talk about their friends, how school is going, or what they’re following on social media.


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Let Them Fail

In non-dangerous situations, it’s healthy to allow your child to struggle and fail. If you take away their opportunity to learn from their mistakes, they miss out on the chance to gain confidence and resiliency.

Create a Safe Space

If you suspect your child is struggling, find ways to express your concern without seeming threatening or judgmental. Create a sense of safety by remaining calm and reassuring. Listen with understanding and validate their feelings. Be the kind of parent your child wants to talk to.

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Mentally Fit Challenge

Sometimes Being Direct is Best

If you notice warning signs (such as shifts in behavior or personality, changes in sleeping or eating habits or loss of interest in activities) it’s sometimes best to initiate a direct conversation. Ask direct questions in a supportive, thoughtful manner. This conversation is easier if you’ve established a baseline of trust.

Stay Connected to Your Pediatrician

Continue to schedule yearly well visits with your pediatrician. They can be your first line of support. They may be able to detect changes in your child's behavior, and they are skilled at screening for depression, anxiety and substance abuse. If you have an immediate concern, make sure to reach out to them.

Behavioral Health Careers
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Include Your Child in the Solution

If you're concerned that your child is struggling, ask how you can help before taking an action. For example, if your child is struggling at school, ask if it would be helpful for you to reach out to their teacher or school counselor. The more you can include your child in the process the better.

Find a Mentor

If your child is not comfortable talking to you, they might be willing to talk to another adult. Providing opportunities for them to open up is the goal. And often that’s easier with someone who’s not their parent!

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Don't Assume

It’s important not to make assumptions about what may be driving a child’s fear and anxiety. If they seem anxious, encourage them to talk more specifically about their fears. By listening carefully to their beliefs and ideas, you may find healthy ways to help them take action to overcome their anxieties.

Apologize When You're Wrong

Parents are going to mess up. Getting it right more than not is the goal. When you do overreact or make a mistake, admit you were wrong and apologize. Not only will your children appreciate your truthfulness, it gives them permission to make mistakes too.

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Practice What You Preach

If you’re really feeling stuck, seek help from the guidance of a therapist, physician or spiritual director for yourself. A trusted third party can provide a new perspective into your child’s behavior. It will also send a great message to your child that it’s okay to reach out for help.

Stop the Stigma

Children pick up on their parents’ attitudes. You may be perpetuating the stigma of mental illness without knowing it. Try to talk about emotional issues in a non-judgmental manner – the way you might talk about a physical illness.

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