This blog is part of an ongoing series on how to speak to your child about difficult topics.

Every so often, your child visits their pediatrician for routine checkups. They know the drill — they’ll get measured and weighed, and screened and questioned. Maybe they’ll get a shot and a sticker. Though your child’s physical health gets habitually evaluated — what about their mental health?

As parents, it’s important to understand and monitor the holistic wellness of your child — not just their physical health, but their emotional and psychological wellbeing too. One way to ensure this is to check in with your child about their mental health. Children can face many different struggles, from anxiety to depression, or bullying and social fears. You may discover that your child is dealing with issues deeper than you had realized, or that they may require further help. To understand this, if your child does not open up on their own, it may be helpful for you to begin the conversation. These conversations are particularly important if you are noticing behavioral changes in your children.

These sorts of conversations can be difficult — to set in motion, to carry through — for both you and your child. But open, honest discussions about mental health are important, even crucial, for families. Whether or not you have these sorts of open conversations already, here are some simple steps and tips to talk to your child about mental health.

Ensure you have a good understanding of mental health

Mental health itself is a broad term, which covers emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing — and affects everything from how we think, process, feel and behave. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Mental health is not static; fluctuations are normal and can be impacted by a multitude of internal and external factors.

Model openness and acceptance of all mental health struggles

Before diving into a direct conversation, model openness and acceptance of all feelings by strengthening your family’s emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is the ability to recognize emotions in yourself and others, offer empathy and compassion to yourself and others, and effectively communicate your feelings. Label how you are feeling throughout the day and talk about the emotional experience of characters in books or television shows. This teaches your child that talking about emotions is normal and encourages them to openly share their own internal experience.

Get a sense of where they are in their understanding of mental health 

Depending on your child’s age, their understanding of mental health may be limited or expansive.

Ask your child what they’ve heard or understand about mental health. If your child is starting from a limited place, it may be useful for you to begin by discussing emotions — like worry, sadness, anger — or to explain how the brain works and controls our thoughts and behavior. You can make an analogy to physical health — like a runny nose or a broken bone that affects daily functions — and explain that a brain can be set off balance too. Just as there are ways to improve your physical health, like exercise, so too are there ways to work on improving your mental health.

By checking in with your child, you are ideally able to look out for both ongoing mental wellness and also any signs of more serious concerns.

Ask open questions and listen

To begin the conversation, empathetic questions that signal your willingness to listen are key. You may want to begin with something broad: “How have you been feeling lately? Has anything been bothering or worrying you?” or “Are there things that make you feel overwhelmed or sad — or things that worry you when you can’t sleep? What does it feel like? How long do those feelings last?” It may be useful to connect your questions to the pandemic, acknowledging that two years of the pandemic has been a major shift that may have increased anxiety and loneliness.

If it feels strange to dive straight into direct questions about feelings, you could begin your conversation by just asking simple, specific questions about your child’s day — ”Who did you spend recess with today? Tell me one thing that brought you joy today. What was something that brought sadness or stress?”

Other questions you may want to ask: “If you could change one thing about your life right now, what would it be?” “Have you ever felt like you needed to talk to someone about something, but didn’t know who to turn to?” or “Is there anything that you used to find interesting that isn’t fun anymore?” or “Where is one place or who is one person who makes you feel safe?”

Keep the conversation compassionate and reassuring. You can model openness by speaking about your own emotions and mental health, perhaps by giving them an example of something that made you feel stressed or sad and why. You should make sure they understand that it is safe for them to open up to you about their emotions and mental health — without judgment or threat. Allow them to ask you questions too — you don’t want this to seem like a one-sided interview or lecture.

Meet your child where they are

Some children may be eager to talk about their feelings, friendships, thoughts, and school days. If that’s the case, then your role is to be the listener. Let your child share, reflect what they are saying, and validate and normalize what you are hearing.

For many other children, these conversations can feel overwhelming. In fact, many children struggle with something called alexithymia – difficulty identifying and feeling emotions. For these kids, pressing the topic of emotions may increase their anxiety. Try not to fret if your child is giving you one-word responses. Remind yourself that this is what they feel comfortable with at the moment; some children take time to warm up and need to test the waters for safety before diving in.

Also keep in mind that many students need time and space to decompress after the school day, so we recommend holding off on these conversations until later in the day when they have had time to unwind, process, and recharge.

Reassure your child

By initiating the conversation in an open and respectful way, you are signaling that you are there for them, and that you are listening to them. You are showing that you are conscious and understanding of the fact they may be facing struggles — and that those struggles are worthy of being heard and respected by you. For a child, that sense of respect from a parent can be invaluable, whether their issue is big or small.

Remind them as you are listening that you value and love them, and that you acknowledge the difficulty of opening up about mental health. Avoid either being dismissive or over-reacting to what they tell you. If you ever slip up, make sure you admit your mistake. Parenting is not a perfect process, and you are also growing and learning alongside your child. They should know, though, that no matter what you are on their side and want to help them get through any struggles they are facing.

After having these conversations, you may feel that you need more resources or help, for you or your child. At Georgetown Psychology, we have therapists trained to evaluate and develop treatment plans that respond to each child’s needs.