How to talk to children about mental health

Speaking to kids about their emotional wellbeing can be challenging. Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist at Nuffield Health, Ekta Mansukhani, shares 10 tips to help you have conversations with children about mental health.

According to our Healthier Nation Index – a survey of more than 8,000 Britons about their health since the start of the pandemic – 47% of parents expressed fears about how the pandemic has affected their children’s mental health.

In recent years we’ve become better at acknowledging, understanding and talking about emotional wellbeing and mental health, especially throughout the uncertainty of the last 18 months, but parents and caregivers can still find this tricky.

Like adults, children often find it hard to recognise and talk about their feelings, so problems can spiral, remain hidden and go unsupported. You can lend them a helping hand though.

Why not start a conversation with your kids about how they're feeling? Here are 10 ways to encourage openness around their emotional wellbeing.

1. Be available and mindful of the present moment

Respond to conversational cues with your full attention. This shows you’re interested and develops closeness. Prioritise the conversations the child initiates over those you wish to have. It takes patience, but listening to the little stuff indicates you care and establishes a bond that makes it easier to talk about more important issues later.

2. Ask open questions to encourage children to open up

Instead of ‘Did you have a good day?’ try ‘Tell me about your day.’ Instead of ‘Are you sad?’ try ‘I’m wondering why you seem sad?’ Or ‘It sounds like that makes you feel sad?’ Respond with non-judgemental language. Instead of ‘That’s ridiculous,’ try ‘Interesting, go on…’ These small changes to your conversations will help young people to feel validated and heard.

3. Hold back on advice unless specifically asked

Avoid the word ‘should’. If the child is faced with a problem, ask them what they think they could do and offer predictions about what could happen.

4. Connect one-to-one and build extended periods of quality, focused time into your routine

Try asking questions while you’re playing, doing art together or just sitting next to each other in the car. Avoiding continuous direct eye contact can take the intensity out of the situation, so it doesn’t feel like an interrogation and helps the young person relax.

5. Look for opportunities for indirect communication

Listen to the conversations your child has with friends on the walk to school, for example. Your child knows you are listening and may use these windows as a way to broach topics indirectly.

6. Soften your approach

Instead of asking ‘why are you so angry?’ which can sound accusatory, say, ‘I’m wondering what’s made you so angry,’ or ‘help me understand what has made you angry.’ Be honest in your approach and tone. Young people can sense when you are not being authentic.

7. Try labelling

Naming feelings and putting them into words can help children expand their emotional vocabulary. Children often model their parents or caregivers: if they hear you talking about feeling sad, angry or worried, they may feel more able to do the same. Labelling feelings on their behalf can also help. Simple observations such as ‘you look anxious,’ may encourage them to elaborate or correct you.

8. Try reflective listening and paraphrasing their words

This can allow children to feel safe to express their feelings. For example:
Adult: “You look / sound / seem sad…”
Child: “No-one talked to me.”
Adult: “You're sad because no-one talked to you. That must be upsetting.”

9. Normalise feelings

This can encourage children to accept and expand on how they feel. For example: “You’re feeling sad because no one talked to you. I guess I would feel sad too."

10. Seek help from others

In some situations, children may prefer to turn to peers or other adults. This is all part of growing up. Perhaps a teacher or sports coach could have a chat? Is there another family member who could spend some quality time with the child?

While establishing open communication with your child can be helpful, if you’re struggling to connect over certain issues, don’t panic. Just knowing you’re available can be reassurance enough.

For more information about how to keep kids happy, healthy and active at home, visit our kids' wellbeing hub.

Remember to take care of yourself too. Talking to other trusted adults and professionals such as a friend or GP/Nurse about your concerns can be helpful.


Last updated Friday 7 October 2022

First published on Thursday 11 July 2019