If you’re concerned that your child seems unhappy, or their behaviour is worrying, you’re not alone.  In 2020, one in six children between the age of five and 16 were identified as having a probable mental health issue. Talking to your child openly about mental health is the first step to providing the help and support they may need.

What children say

Tackling the subject of mental health with your child can be daunting. You may not feel very confident. Where do you start?  What do you say when talking to your child about mental health?  What do you avoid?  As part of Children’s Mental Health Week, young people were asked how they would prefer parents and carers to talk about emotional wellbeing.  Here’s the lowdown on what young people said:

“We don’t need to have a sit-down conversation about mental health – a chat on a journey or in the car is often enough.”

“I need to know it’s OK to talk to you about any or all of my feelings.”

“Please listen to me carefully and acknowledge my feelings – it might seem silly to you but what I am going through is important to me.”

“Playing with pets can make me feel better. I can also feel better by playing basketball and sports.”

“Don’t compare my experiences to your own, when you were a child.”

“Sometimes I just need you to listen and hear what I’m saying – I don’t always need answers ,or lectures.”

“Don’t worry about trying to fix me. I often just need to know you’re there and understand what I’m going through.”

“If you are open with me about your feelings, it will help me be more open about mine.”


Give your child the chance to talk

It may help to get the ball rolling by remembering easy conversation starters, such as ‘What was the best thing about your day?’   ‘Who would you talk to, if you were feeling worried?’ Or, simply ‘How can I help?’  You might say “I’ve noticed you’ve been quiet lately, is there something you want to talk about?”  Discussing a relevant story line on a TV programme or film can also be a good way into a conversation.

Speaking to a young child about mental health

Even young children can understand feelings and behaviours if they have the chance to talk about it. It’s a good idea to give your child examples of what you mean, for instance: “When you said you hated Ruby, you looked angry. What was making you so cross?” Or, “When you couldn’t sleep, did you have anything in your mind that was making you worried?”

Be there if they need you

Older children might not want to talk at first.  Let them know you are concerned about them and will be there if they need you.  Sending a text might be better if they prefer to communicate that way.

How to listen

Give them your full attention.  Put your phone away. Sometimes, it can be easier for you both to be doing an activity while you speak. Ensure your body language is relaxed to show you’re open and not judgemental. Allow them to talk and don’t feel the need to fill in the silences. Sometimes repeating back something, helps to clarify what’s been said and shows you’ve been listening. Don’t forget, you do not need to fix things immediately, or even at all.

After you’ve talked about mental health

Reassure them that you’re there to support them. Don’t forget to ask how you can help, what they would like to happen, and if they think getting support from someone else, like a teacher or doctor would help. Be patient if they feel upset or if the chat doesn’t end calmly. Remind them that there is help and you will get through it together. When you’re done, do something together that you both enjoy.

Find out more

You can get more information, activities for children, and sources of support at Children’s Mental Health Week and take a look at our article on building positive relationships with children.