Starting a mental health conversation with kids

African American father and his son.
Portrait of an African American father and his son.

By JUAN L. BENAVIDES, LMSW and ELIZABETH ADKINS, LMSW

For much of today’s youth, mental health is an unavoidable topic. These discussions fill our news feeds, our schools, our communities and sometimes our own families. However, many caregivers express discomfort and timidity in talking about such heavy feelings and emotions with children.

There is no specific age or timeline to bring up mental health, though some research shows the sooner we do, the more informed our children will become. Labeling their emotions for what they are can be beneficial to their development. It’s important to validate your child’s emotions and reassure them it’s “OK” to feel different. 

Here are tips on starting conversations in an age-appropriate manner:

PRESCHOOLERS & YOUNGER

Children at this young age have a limited understanding of concepts they can’t visualize. When talking to toddlers about mental health, keep the dialogue simple and concrete. For example, they might ask why someone is crying or yelling. Discussing how and why people might feel these emotions is crucial for their development. As a strategy, consider coloring or drawing different emotions with your child.

SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN

Elementary school children might discuss emotions in a more straightforward manner. For example, they might say “that person is crying, they must be sad,” or “someone is yelling, they’re angry.” It’s important to answer their questions and confirm their probabilities truthfully and directly. At this age, children are more aware of their surroundings and more worried about their safety. Sometimes, having other family members (such as older siblings) present for these conversations is appropriate for additional perspective and support.

TEENAGERS

Most adolescents and teenagers are able to absorb and manage more information, leading to more difficult questions. Teens commonly talk more about mental health with their friends or peers rather than their parents. Offering teens an open and safe place for conversation is vital. Listen to them intently, and respond honestly and positively. Teenagers are often vulnerable on many levels, so engaging them with compassion and through calm dialogue can be helpful.

If you feel your child is experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, seek support through their pediatrician, school counselor and/or a licensed mental health professional.