How to talk to children about mental health

Talking to kids about their emotional wellbeing and mental can be challenging. Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist at Nuffield Health, Ekta Mansukhani, shares her expert advice.

In recent years we’ve become better at acknowledging, understanding and talking about emotional wellbeing and mental health, 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.

Recent studies in England show that 1 in 8 children between the ages of 5 and 19 has a mental health disorder. Indeed, everyone has ups and downs with their mental health throughout their lives.

These tips can help you have conversations about mental health:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Connect one-to-one and build extended periods of quality, focused time into your routine.
    Try asking questions while you’re doing art together, playing Lego 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 are sad because no-one talked to you. That must be upsetting.”

  • Normalise feelings.
    This can encourage children to accept and expand on how they feel. For example: “You’re feeling… because… I guess… would feel … too."

  • 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 kids' wellbeing and how to keep happy, healthy & active at home by exploring new ways to eat well, move well, sleep well and feel well, visit here.

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 Monday 4 May 2020