According to the CDC, 1 in 6 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s becoming more and more important for parents to know how to talk about mental health issues with their children. Understandably, it can be difficult to know how to have these conversations. But when you open these conversations, you let your child know that it’s okay to talk about mental health – it’s not something to feel ashamed of or have to hide.

May 9th is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. To commemorate this important holiday, we’ve gathered 7 tips on how to start a conversation about mental health with your child – including language you can borrow and analogies you can use.

Focus on emotions

It can be helpful to open these conversations by talking about emotions. Even if your child doesn’t yet understand mental health, they do understand emotions. Their emotional vocabulary will typically depend on their developmental level. As they grow, children can understand more and more complex emotions; what they understood simply as “sadness” when they were younger can expand into “grief,” “disappointment,” “brokenheartedness,” and more.

You can describe common mental health problems using emotions that your child understands. For example, you could explain, “Depression is when someone feels very sad and lonely, and that feeling doesn’t go away for a long time.” or, “People with anxiety feel scared and nervous, even when there’s nothing truly dangerous to be afraid of.”

Make analogies to physical health

Even when children have never heard of mental health, they tend to understand the concept of physical health; they’ve seen their pediatrician, gotten their vaccines, and probably experienced at least minor physical illnesses like the common cold. You can use this in an analogy to help younger children understand more about mental health.

Try saying something like,

“Do you remember when we went to see your pediatrician when you were throwing up and had a fever? Sometimes, we might go to another type of doctor because our brains and feelings are sick. We might feel really sad or really scared. Sometimes, these feelings don’t go away on their own and we need to see a doctor. These feelings doctors are called therapists or psychologists. They help people feel better in their mind, just like when your pediatrician gave you the medicine.”

Respect their boundaries

For some children, talking about mental health may be triggering or overwhelming. For example, if you or another family member lives with a mental illness, or if your child’s own mental health has been suffering, talking about these topics may bring up a lot of painful feelings. You might find that your child, especially if they’re a teenager, is reluctant to talk or share.

It’s important to respect your child’s boundaries; trying to force them to talk about it will likely only make them shut down further. Make sure you communicate your desire to understand, and let them know that you’re there to listen whenever they’re ready to.

If you are concerned about your child’s mental health and they’re refusing to talk to you about it, there are ways to express that concern. You might say something like, “I think something might be going on, and I want you to know that I’m here to listen. I know that this is hard to talk about. Only you know how you feel, but I am here to support you. I’ll never judge you for anything you tell me.”

Share your own emotional experiences

Talking about your own emotions can help normalize these conversations. This doesn’t mean that you should break boundaries and lean on your child for support while you’re going through a mental health crisis. But regularly naming your emotions can help your child understand that mental health is on a spectrum. No one is always “happy” or always “sad.”

For example, perhaps your family pet has died. If your child has been acting out or showing some signs of irritability, it could be that they don’t know how else to express their grief. You could say something like, “I miss our pet a lot. I feel really sad about it. It’s called grief, and it’s normal to feel like this when someone you love dies or goes away. How are you feeling about our pet?”

Validate their feelings

If your child does come to you with an emotion or mental health symptoms, take it seriously and provide validation. It’s easy for adults to minimize children’s concerns; they often feel trivial to us. Sometimes, we also unintentionally judge children for having strong feelings.

It’s often well-intentioned; for example, if your teenager says that they’re depressed because of something that happened with their crush, it may be tempting to want to tell them, “You won’t even care about this person in a few years. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.” Or if they tell you they’re hurting themselves because they’re depressed, you might have the urge to say: “Why would you do this to yourself?”

But remember that, even if it doesn’t make sense to you at first, these concerns are real for them, and it’s important to help your child feel validated and supported – especially when they’ve

You can use phrases like:

  • That sounds so painful.
  • This must be really hard.
  • I can see that this is really important to you.
  • I can see that you’re hurting.

Let them know it’s not their fault

Whether it’s your child who’s facing a mental health issue or someone else in your family, your child needs to know that it’s not their fault. Children, especially younger children, may blame themselves for a crisis, especially if they don’t understand it. Make it clear that whatever’s happening is not their fault.

If your child is experiencing mental health concerns, you can try to normalize it for them. You can say something like, “Just like people get the flu sometimes, we also get sick in other ways. You have a sickness that makes you feel really scared and nervous at school, but you’re going to get better. It’s not your fault, and we’ll get through it together. Lots of kids feel the same way.”

If someone else in your family is experiencing mental illness, you (and other important adults in your child’s life) can decide how much detail is appropriate to reveal to them. But keep in mind that hiding it altogether will likely be ineffective – your child may pick up on the fact that something is wrong. The important thing is to communicate to them that whatever is happening is not their fault.

For example, to a younger child, you might say: “Dad is going through a hard time. He has a sickness that makes him feel a lot of things, and you might notice that he looks sad sometimes. He just needs to rest, and his doctor is helping him feel better. None of this is your fault – you didn’t do anything wrong. This is just a sickness that happens to people sometimes, just like when you caught the flu.”

Open conversations, and keep them open

Finally, don’t wait to open these conversations with your child, especially if you have concerns for their mental health. Don’t wait for them to come to you. There are many reasons why people, both children and adults, find it challenging to come forward about mental health issues, including feelings of shame and a lack of understanding. You can make the process easier by opening the conversation in a safe and non-judgmental way.

In addition, keep in mind that talking about mental health one time is a good start – but it’s also important to keep these conversations open. Revisit the topic of mental health when it’s relevant. Keep checking in with your child. Answer their questions when they come up. It’s important for children to know that it’s always okay to talk about their mental health, and that you’re there to support them and help them understand.

Your employee assistance program can help

Our EAP offers 24/7 confidential counseling, as well as parent coaching, for our members. If you or your child are experiencing mental health issues, or if you simply need someone to talk to about these topics, get in touch with us or check out your digital services. We’re here to support you and your family.

To Your Wellbeing,

The MINES Team