How to Talk to Your Kids About Depression

  

How do you talk to your kids about depression? That will depend on a few different factors. First, you need to know the reason for the discussion. Are you looking to share information in general, tell them about your own struggle with depression, or talk to them about whether they have depression? This will guide what you do.

Second, what age is your child? Whether your child is of preschool age, elementary school, or high school, will largely determine the discussion that you have. Younger children require less detailed information whereas older teens can handle much more. 

Whatever your situation, know that being open about mental health issues is always preferable to keeping them secret or not talking about them. Mental illness has long been maligned as something that nobody talks about. The more open you can be with your children, the more comfortable they will feel coming to you to talk about their problems in the future. 

Sharing Information About Depression 

If you simply want to share information about depression in general or about mental health, this is an admirable thing to do. In the past, mental health has involved stigma, lack of information, and has been a hard thing for families to talk about. Between 2007 and 2018, the youth suicide rate increased by 60%, making mental health discussions a top priority for families. 

As a parent, it’s important to break down these barriers with your children at an early age since depression is an issue that could eventually affect someone in the family. This may be especially relevant if you have blood relatives who have been diagnosed with depression.  

While it may feel hard to talk about, if you wait until your child grows older, the conversations will be harder to start. If you begin now talking about depression or other mental health issues as you would talk about a physical illness such as cancer or diabetes, then your child will be more likely to come to you if they are having problems. In this way, you open the door for conversation when you start young. 

Again, you’ll want to consider the age of your child before doing so. Below are some tips on how to handle this conversation at any age. 

Preschool 

During the preschool years, you’ll want to tailor your conversation to topics that your child can understand. This might include talking about emotions and sadness, and how you deal with your own sadness. Parents who openly share emotions as well as the coping strategies that they use to deal with them model behaviors that their preschool children can learn to emulate. In addition, they teach their children that it’s okay to talk about emotions and to ask for help when needed. 

Elementary School 

Discussions with elementary school children will build on the same foundation. However, as your child grows older, you can begin to share more details and explanations about mental health. Using accurate terms to describe illness such as depression will help your child both to learn about the illness as well as to feel reduced stigma or shame if they ever feel depressed themselves.  

High School 

Finally, during the high school years, keeping an open conversation about mental health in general will mean that your teen always feels comfortable coming to your for support. A parent who is perceived as willing to help with mental health problems will be more approachable than one who has never brought up the subject. Overall, always encourage your child to reach out for help if they feel sad or down, no matter their age. Encourage sharing emotions and be ready with strategies for when your child does reach out to you. 

Sharing About Your Own Depression 

What if you want to talk to your child about your own depression? While it may feel hard to talk about, it’s best to eventually get your condition out in the open. While younger children may have more trouble understanding, there are ways you can speak to your child that will help to explain it to them. 

You may also be wondering when is the best time to share with your child about your own depression. When you first have symptoms? After you’ve developed a treatment plan with your doctor? Or after your treatment is well underway? 

The truth is that most children will pick up on the fact that you are not well. If you try to cover up the truth, they may make up stories about what is happening that are more frightening than the actual situation, particularly in the case of younger children.  

For this reason, it’s best to talk about your mental health as soon as you feel comfortable. You don’t need to talk to them as though you have everything figured out or a plan in place as to when you will be “cured.”  

Instead, you’ll want to reassure them that despite your illness, everything is going to be fine and that they don’t need to be afraid. What your children need most from you is reassurance that they are loved and that everything will be okay. 

That might mean making extra sure that you keep routines as much as possible, even when your illness makes it hard. That might mean bringing in extra help in the form of a partner, friend, family member, or paid help when you are not doing well. Try to keep up with routines such as regular mealtimes and family activities to reassure your child and calm their fears. 

It will also be important to consider that your child may blame themselves. For this reason, check in with your child to ask them how they are doing. If they are struggling, you may want to talk to your own doctor or therapist about options for the whole family. 

Finally, be sure to choose a time to talk to your child that you will not be interrupted and where your child feels comfortable. This could mean while doing a favorite activity together or riding in the car. Give them time to think about what you’ve shared and time for them to understand. Be open to questions and ask them how they feel. Most importantly, go easy on yourself if you are feeling bad about the situation. Your child needs to know that depression is an illness like any other, and it is not something you are choosing to have.  

Preschool 

What should you say to your preschool child? A younger child does not need to know a lot of details about your condition, nor would they understand. If you share too many things at once, they may feel overloaded and confused. What’s more, a younger child is more likely to think in terms of physical impacts of your illness. They may worry that you will become very ill and even die from depression. 


If your child is of preschool age, it’s best to keep your explanation to concrete terms that they can understand.

Choose a time to talk that feels natural and not forced, like when you a sitting down to draw or build something. Use simple language, like Mommy feels sad sometimes.

Give examples of what happens when you feel sad, such as you have a hard time getting out of bed or it’s hard to do work around the house. If your spouse needs to take over while you lie down, you can explain to your child that this is part of you not feeling well. 

A young child can also help a depressed parent keep up with routines and family structure. Keeping structure and order in their life will help them to feel safe, even though it may feel very difficult for you.

Do what you can to set things up on autopilot, where they know exactly what is expected of them and the routines that they should follow. This will help them to feel safe, and also help you around the house. Even young children can be taught to put away their toys and help a parent when they need help. 

Above all else, remember that even very young preschool-age children can be affected by your depression. If you are too depressed to engage and play with your child, they may feel something is wrong even though they can’t put it into words. However, children are resilient if you can keep the lines of communication open. 

Elementary School 

What about if your child is in elementary school? As your child is a bit older, you can start to talk in more concrete terms and use words to describe your illness such as “depression.” You don’t necessarily need to share all the details of your symptoms or your treatment plan, but certainly should answer any questions that they have. 

At this age, children are more susceptible to feeling as though they are somehow to blame for your depression, particularly if you are not open in sharing what is going on with you. For this reason, it’s important to share with your child that none of this is their fault and that you are getting the help that you need. 

Again, children of this age can help you out around the house by doing chores to keep things running with structure and a routine. This might mean putting dishes in the dishwasher or putting their laundry in a laundry basket. Some children may even be able to take on more depending on their own personality. 

With children of this age, the best time to talk might be while out doing an activity together such as going for a walk around the block. Talk about how you are feeling and ask them how they are feeling. Apologize if you have not been acting like yourself, but reassure them that you are getting the help that you need. Finally, share how you are coping, so that they know how to deal with their own emotions in the future. 

High School 

Finally, if your child is of high school age, the conversation that you have may look very different. You may want to talk to them openly about your diagnosis, your treatment plan, and how your behavior affects them. Ask them how they feel about the situation, and be willing to wait a little while for an answer.

Older children can help out even more around the house by doing things like making dinner or running errands. Be sure to keep checking in with your child about how they feel.  

When You’re Worried About Depression in Your Child 

What should you do if you are concerned your child may be depressed? Again, this will depend on the age of your child and your relationship with your child. Below are some suggestions on how to bring up the subject of depression with preschool children, elementary school children, and high school aged children. 

Preschool 

If your child is still of preschool age, it’s more likely that you would observe sadness than suspect depression. At this age, it’s important to know that your child is still learning about the world and about their own feelings.

Ask them how they feel when they are upset, and show them that it’s okay to talk about bad feelings. Thank them for sharing and make sure to check in with them often.

At this age, if you suspect a problem with mental health, the best first step is to speak to your pediatrician to voice your concerns. Your child’s doctor will be best equipped to advise on whether it’s an issue you should be concerned about. 

Elementary School 

Children of elementary school age are beginning to understand more about the world, and may feel afraid to share with you how they are feeling for fear that they will “get in trouble.” For this reason, it’s important to have an open mind, be an active and engaged listener, and reduce any stigma about talking about feelings and mental health. 

Your child needs to know that you are a person they can trust and with whom they can share their problems. For this reason, try to put yourself in your child’s shoes and show empathy for their situation. If you notice that they seem to be struggling, ask them how they are feeling and how you can help. At the same time, don’t encourage dwelling on negative emotions. Rather, talk them through and try to find out what is going on. 

The most important thing to remember when speaking to your elementary school-aged child is to remain calm, rational, and non-judgmental. Your goal is not so much to “fix” the problem, but rather to work towards understanding the problem and showing your child that you are willing to listen. Instead of jumping in with solutions to problems, really listen to what your child is sharing and how they are feeling. This will go a long way toward encouraging them to speak to you in the future when they need help. 

Finally, if you are genuinely concerned that your elementary school-aged child is struggling with depression, speak to your family doctor or their pediatrician. Again, having the advice of a professional will make things easier and you won’t have to wonder any longer if you are ignoring signs of a problem that should be treated. 

High School 

Finally, what should you do if you have a high school aged child and are worried that they may be depressed? At this age, there is definitely a reason for concern as suicide rates are on the rise. Many teens are now involved in social media and technology, which can have a negative impact on their mental health. How do you as a parent talk to them if you feel they may be suffering from depression? 

It’s important for your teen to know that it’s okay for them to come to you if they are feeling sad, depressed, or like attempting self-harm or suicide. You can make them feel it is okay to come to you by being calm and open when you do talk with each other and establishing a level of trust. 

If you’re aren’t sure how to bring up the topic, consider watching a movie or other program on the topic as a starting point. Choose a time when they are not tired, stressed, etc., and watch the program together. Then ask some open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling?” or “What are you thinking about?” 


While your teen might not be open to talking right away, it’s important to let them know that you are there for them if they have questions or want to talk. You can also remind them that it is okay to ask for help and that asking for help is not a sign of being weak. 

Your older child may feel helpless if they are feeling depressed, so it’s important that you take any warning signs or symptoms seriously. Does it seem as though your teen’s routine has become disrupted? Start a conversation about that. Talk to them directly about depression (or self-harm) in order to show that the lines of communication are open and that you are there to be a resource for them. You can even ask directly whether your teen is feeling depressed or ever thought of harming themself. 

Most importantly, don’t take the stance of giving a lecture or being condescending. Nothing will push your teen further away more quickly. If your teen is actually depressed, a parent who appears to be taking a stand or being harsh will only make things worse. Show your thanks for anything that they share, so that they are open to having more conversations. 

In addition, if you are feeling overwhelmed at the thought of having these conversations, you don’t need to do it all on your own. You have the option of involving a third party such as a doctor or mental health professional if you are truly concerned. 

With a teenager, you can also talk about self-care for depression and things that can be done to improve their mood such as limiting the use of technology, eating healthy foods, getting regular exercise, and getting out to spend time doing enjoyable things. A depressed teen who spends a lot of time alone will feel more depressed.  

Finally, if you feel as though your teen might be in a crisis situation, please take them to an emergency department or have them call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak to a trained crisis counselor about their situation. It’s better to overreact than underreact if you are truly concerned your child may be in crisis. 

A Word From Verywell 

If you feel you need to talk to your child about depression, either to provide general information, to share your own diagnosis and struggles, or out of concern your child may be depressed, then you might be feeling overwhelmed and not know what to say

The most important thing to remember is that what your child needs most from you is for you to treat them with respect and compassion. While children are resilient, a child who is dealing with a depressed parent or dealing with depression themselves will need extra support and attention. If you are not able to provide that yourself, then it will need to come in the support from others such as family, friends, or professionals. 

Finally, be sure to keep the lines of communication open long after you have the initial conversation. Your goal is not to have a one-and-done talk. Rather, you want to encourage your child to be able to come to you at any time with their concerns, knowing that you will provide a listening ear and be ready to understand and empathize.

Once a child feels comfortable talking about depression, in whatever context, the situation will be improved for the better for the whole family. And, you may find that once the topic of depression is out in the open, there is less stigma about sharing openly with others when the time comes. 

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