How to Talk to Kids about Mental Health

Words: Jenni – Palette
Illustrated by: Marina_Springrose

It can be hard to know how to speak to children about sensitive topics.
This is no different when it comes to mental health.

Whilst it’s something we all have, mental health can still be an intimidating subject to broach. However speaking to kids about mental health – especially if we suspect they might be struggling – is one of the most important things we can do to maintain their emotional wellbeing, and help them to become resilient adults.

Here are 7 guidelines that can be helpful when speaking to young people about this subject.

1. Have regular conversations, and start them early

In order for children to feel comfortable opening up to us, we need to be having regular conversations with them as early as possible. Having frequent, free-flowing conversations from an early age means children are more likely to feel comfortable talking about any difficulties they go through later on. Actively encouraging them to think and talk about how they feel also teaches them that it’s good to express their emotions.

Try to chat in a pressure-free environment, such as going for a walk together, playing a game, drawing or doing something else they enjoy. Ask open-ended questions, such as “how was school today?”, “did you talk to any friends today?”, “how did you feel about that?”

2. Lead by example

Children follow the lead of the adults in their lives. If we are honest and open about our feelings, we demonstrate that they can be honest and open too. If we ask for help from others, the more likely they will be to accept the help we want to give them.

By modelling self-care behaviour, children will learn to not only understand – but prioritise – their mental health.

3. Keep it age-appropriate

Depending on their age, when we speak about mental health the words we use will vary. We want to make sure we use words that children understand and use metaphors they can relate to.
For example, we might ask a 5-yr old about their feelings of sadness by referencing a TV show they like where one of the characters also experiences sadness.

Kids are very perceptive, and it can sometimes surprise us how much they are capable of comprehending and discussing. Listen, empathise, and support them in a way that is appropriate for their age.

4. Take them seriously and validate their feelings

When someone is suffering – especially if they’re a child – our instinct often tells us to reassure them everything is ok. We want them to feel better, so we tell them that things aren’t so bad. However in doing this, we actually risk invalidating their feelings. They tell us “I feel sad about this” and we tell them “you don’t need to feel sad about that, it’s fine”.

Instead of reassuring them in this way, empathise with them. Try to understand where they’re coming from and how they feel. Acknowledging their emotions by saying something like “that sounds really difficult” can be extremely powerful. It shows them you have really listened – you hear what they’re saying – and you take them seriously.

5. Don’t be afraid to confront the scary subjects

It can be extremely scary for us when someone we care about is struggling with their mental health. It can be a very real worry that they will harm themselves. So what do we do in this case? If we mention our concerns around self harm or suicide, is it going to upset them, or worse – trigger it?

Even though it might feel scary, if you’re concerned a child is having harmful or suicidal thoughts, it’s important to speak to them about it to show them you can handle it and you’re there for them.

No-one enjoys being interrogated, not least kids, so don’t begin with 20 questions. Trust your gut and read between the lines. For example, you might say “it sounds like you might be thinking of hurting yourself”, or ask them about any suicidal thoughts they might have had. Continue to check in regularly to keep the conversation going.

6. Don’t take it personally

When children and young people are struggling with their mental health it can show itself as anger. This can be very hard to deal with as a parent, especially if the child’s comments are harsh or personal.

Try to stay in touch with what’s going on with them and remember where the anger is coming from. Be realistic about your limitations too and be sure to look after yourself. If you need a break, ask friends and family for help so you can have some time off from any outbursts.

7. Seek help

With that in mind, remember that you are not expected to have all the answers or cope flawlessly with challenges. If you feel you need more information, see what resources are available from your local library or explore online support groups.

Contact your GP to discuss accessing specific mental health support, and ensure the child is aware of these services they can access themselves.

Remember, if at any point you feel someone may be having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to seek help immediately.

About The Artist

“I am an artist originally from Russia, where I got my education as an art teacher.
I have been living in New Zealand for the past eight years.
I work in a wide variety of styles, such oil and watercolour painting, digital, black and white graphics, clay sculptures, and cookie decorating.”

You can see more of Marina’s work on Instagram

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