How to talk to your child about mental health

Raising kids is never easy. Not only do you have to make sure they are well-fed, bathed, and clothed, but you have to take care of their emotional needs as well. And while almost every parent knows how to deal with scraped knees and bruises, helping kids deal with their mental health can be significantly more challenging. 

First things first: for a child to thrive, they need a safe environment—whether at home, in the classroom, or the playground—and unconditional love from family. Without these two things, their self-esteem may crumble. 

According to Mental Health America, many signs may indicate a child’s need for professional help, including a decline in school performance, persistent nightmares, frequent temper tantrums, a refusal to go to school, or anxiety about taking part in everyday activities.[1] 

Be aware of these signs, as children with mental issues, especially depression, are at a higher risk for suicide. While children may get help from other places, it’s impactful when parents can confidently teach their children about mental health.

The National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health suggests talking to children about mental health by comparing it to physical health.[2] For example, while many people get sick from a cold or the flu, far fewer get pneumonia. People with a cold suffer differently than people with pneumonia, which will likely require hospitalization. Similarly, mental illnesses range in how they can impact a child’s social skills and focus at school.

Parents should communicate in a straightforward manner and at an appropriate level for their children. Consider engaging in conversation only when it’s apparent that the child feels safe and comfortable. Pay attention to your children’s reaction during these conversations, and slow down if the child appears overwhelmed or confused. 

If your child is displaying behavior that isn’t like them, take it seriously, it could be a sign of mental health issues. Steps to engage with your child 

Recognize how your child’s behavior is off or abnormal.

Create a safe place free of screens, distractions, peers, or siblings. 

With a neutral yet loving tone, ask your child straightforward questions and observe their reaction during the discussion. 

Go at the child’s pace. Children that seem confused or look upset may need you to slow down or stop. Often they might not know the language or words that best describe their feelings.  

Create space for them to express their feelings about the conversation. If they don’t want to talk to you, then consider engaging somebody else. 


Fortunately, there are resources to help parents explain mental illness to children. Professionals like pediatricians, school counselors, therapists, self-help or support groups, libraries, and hotlines—even other families in the neighborhood—can offer needed support for your child.


If your child or someone you know is in crisis — thinking about harming themself or attempting suicide:

Tell someone who can help right away

Call 911 for emergency services

Go to the nearest hospital emergency room

Set up a time to counsel with a therapist at PATH Behavioral Health. Call 1-844-584-PATH (1-844-584-7284)

Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) and connect with a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you. 



[1] Mental Health America:

[2] National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health:

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