Advise Me

Let’s Talk: How to Discuss Mental Health with Your Child or Teen

As a parent, you’ve got a big job – helping your children through life’s ups and downs, including their feelings and mental health. But sometimes, talking about mental health with your child or teen can feel a bit tricky. You might worry about saying the right things or not knowing how to start the conversation.  

Part of the reason mental health can feel so difficult to talk about is there has been a long-standing stigma surrounding it. The best way to break this stigma is to speak about it.  

Alyssa Bowman, LMFT, a mental health counselor with Banner Health, shares how to chat with your child in a way that’s just right for their age, from why it’s important to have these talks to tips for making the conversations go smoothly. 

The hard facts about mental health problems in kids 

Mental health issues are more common in children than you might think. Just like adults, kids can also struggle.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five children and adolescents worldwide have a mental health disorder. Depression and anxiety have risen for children between ages 3 and 17, and suicide is the eighth leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 11. 

“We’re also living in an era of prolonged stress,” Bowman added. “Issues like social pressures, bullying, gun violence in school, violence seen on social media and video games, the breakdown of family and even the political atmosphere have all contributed to health concerns with children.” 

Why talking about mental health matters 

Mental health disorders shouldn’t be a taboo topic, but it remains so for many parents.  

“Some parents worry talking about mental or behavioral health will somehow result in their child developing these symptoms, or that their child won’t understand emotions and mental health issues,” Bowman said. “The truth is talking openly about mental health – and early on – can help your child understand their feelings and learn to cope with stress in healthy ways.” 

If you avoid these talks, your child might keep their concerns and feelings to themselves, and they may worry about being judged and avoid seeking help.  

Tips for how to make talking easier 

If you’re not sure where to start or what the age-appropriate language may be, Bowman shared the following tips: 

Start now 

Create a space where mental health is just as normal of a conversation as the weather or what they did at school. Starting conversations about feelings, emotions and mental health at a young age makes it easier to talk about big issues if they come up later in life. 

Use age-appropriate language 

Tailor your language to their age and level of understanding.   

Elementary: “For younger children, you can use pictures to help them show how they feel,” Bowman said. “Use simple words, like happy, angry, sad or upset, to describe how they feel when strong emotions are present or talk about a strong emotional moment once your child has had time to calm down.” 

Reading books can also be helpful for young children. Bowman suggested the following books for kids: 

  • “Dragons on the Inside (And Other Big Feelings)” 
  • “In My Heart: A Book of Feelings” 
  • “My Many Colored Days” 
  • “What’s Going on Inside My Head” 

Middle school: As children get older, they will understand more about their feelings. Talk about why taking care of your mind is important, just like you take care of your body. “Use a daily emotional check-in to see how they are doing,” Bowman said. 

High school: Discuss mental health with your teen, not at them. Talk about taking care of themselves and handling stress. Ask them to share a high or low from the day and discuss it. Here are other ways to support your teen

  • Create a safe space: Ensure your child knows they can talk to you about their emotions without fear of judgment or punishment.  
  • Respect their boundaries: If they don’t want to share their experience right away, be patient and respect their choice. Let them know that you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk. You could also see if they prefer other forms of communication, like writing a letter or texting.  
  • Listen well and validate: When your child wants to talk to you about their feelings, give them your full attention and listen without judgment. Let them know you’re there for them and their feelings are important. 
  • Normalize mental health: Help your child understand that everyone experiences ups and downs with mental health. A good way to open the door is to talk about it when something comes up in the family, in the news or to someone they admire. 
  • Teach coping strategies: Introduce coping techniques like drawing, journaling, controlled breathing or going for a walk when feeling stressed, anxious or other big emotions. 
  • Encourage self-care: Teach your child the importance of caring for their mental health by practicing self-care activities like getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising and spending time with friends and family. 
  • Provide resources: Let your child know that resources are available to support their mental health, such as school counselors, therapists and hotlines they can call or text for help.  

What to look for in your child or teen 

It’s normal to have good and bad days – especially during childhood. These usually don’t get in the way of daily life. Here are some signs that your child may need more support: 

  • Changes in mood, behavior or play for two weeks or more. 
  • Engages in play that suddenly becomes more violent. 
  • Withdraws from friends and activities. 
  • Has problems sleeping. 
  • Struggles to concentrate. 
  • Changes in eating and appetite. 
  • Intense worries or fears. 
  • Struggles with schoolwork and grades. 
  • Has physical symptoms like fast heartbeat, nausea, dizziness and hyperventilation. 
  • Talks about suicide, tries to harm themself or makes plans to do so. 

Talk to your child’s health care provider if you notice signs or symptoms that concern you, even if you’re just wondering whether these are “normal” or not. You can also speak with a licensed behavioral specialist, such as a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist.  

If your child is thinking about hurting themselves or has tried to, it’s important to act right away. If it’s an emergency, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or text “TALK” to 741741 for help from people who know how to keep your child safe. 


Talking about feelings and mental health might seem tricky at first, but with practice it gets easier. By talking openly about feelings, you’re helping them develop the skills to navigate life’s challenges with confidence and resilience. 

Remember that you’re not alone. There are lots of people and resources that can help you and your child along the way. Speak with your child’s provider or a Banner Health specialist

For other related blogs, check out: 

Behavioral Health Children's Health Parenting