How to Talk to Your Kids About Mental Health

A little boy uses sign language to talk to a woman

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Mental health is a tough topic to tackle, no matter how old you are. For our youth, mental health can be even harder to talk about.

Raging hormones, a developing brain, plenty of stigma, and lots of misinformation add up to make the conversation of mental health a tough equation to crack. Don’t let the challenges discourage you from talking about mental health with your kids. This conversation is needed now more than ever. 

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic haven’t been easy for anyone. However, children have experienced immense loss during this time. The impact of losing their daily routine, social life, and outdoor activities inevitably damaged their mental health, leaving them at an increased risk to develop psychiatric disorders in the future.

While this may sound bleak, we want to assure you there is hope. These shifts in mental health for young folks make an honest discussion about their well-being more essential than ever. Read on to learn how you can have the mental health talk with your kids.

Confront Any Internalized Bias and Stigma

The first and most important step in talking to your kids about mental health is checking any internalized bias and stigma you may have. A great way to do this is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have negative opinions about certain mental health conditions? 
  • How do you feel about your own mental health?
  • Have you ever sought mental health care? If so, what was that experience like for you?
  • Do you have any fears related to mental health? If so, where do you think they come from?

These questions offer an opportunity to develop deeper insights into yourself. The more comfortable you feel talking about mental health, the easier it will be to speak about it with your children.

Model Vulnerability

Let your child see how you navigate big feelings. It is OK to let your child know you’re upset about a tough day or sad about an experience you’re having in a friendship.

Remain mindful of your parenting boundaries—the last thing you’d want is for your child to feel like they have to take care of your mental health.

A great way to keep this boundary in place is to always be sure to share about how you’re taking care of your emotions, whether that is going to therapy, taking a walk, or calling a friend. 

Create a Zen Zone

Building a zen zone, also known as a cozy corner or relaxation station, in your home is a great way to start a mental health conversation with younger kids.

What Is a Zen Zone?

A zen zone is a behavioral health intervention that is making its rounds in trauma-informed teacher circles. A zen zone is a sensory-friendly space where your child can take time to regulate challenging emotions. It isn't a space for punishment. Instead, it is a space where kids can learn to process their feelings. Initially developed in classrooms, zen zones can easily be created in the home.

While research on this intervention is minimal, there is plenty of anecdotal intel on the internet suggesting its efficacy.

The concept of a zen zone is based upon the idea that rather than sternly disciplining our children when they act out, we can give them the space to self-regulate and then chat with them when they've cooled off. 

Involve Your Child When Creating a Zen Zone

The zen zone can be as big or as little as you’d prefer, but the key is to involve your child in the process of making it. This cultivates a sense of connection and offers an entry point into the mental health conversation.

Ask your kid what sensory-friendly things would help them calm down when activated—think a stress ball, soft blanket, fidget spinner, a slinky, or a list of mindfulness activities. 

The best part of building a zen zone is that it is great for all ages. If the zone is created for children under 10, consider hanging up a feelings chart. This is a chart that illustrates different feelings with different images so your child can simply point to an image to let you know how they’re feeling. 

It is really important to normalize the zen zone in your home. If you notice your child is becoming agitated, upset, or tearful, gently remind them they can spend time collecting their thoughts in the zen zone. When they’re ready, you two can have a conversation about the feelings they are experiencing.

Keep It Direct

There is nothing quite like the instinct of a parent. If you are getting a sense that something is very wrong, address it directly with your child to keep them safe.

Mental health treatments have advanced, making many choices for relief available. If you’re getting a sense that your child is depressed, experiencing suicidal thoughts, or are engaging in risky behavior, don’t avoid the topic for fear of making it worse.

Instead, tackle it head-on and seek the support of a licensed mental health professional. If you feel it is an emergency, dial 911. Though it may be hard, remember that you are providing the nurturing care your child deserves. 

Meet Them Where They’re At

If you have an adolescent in your home, then you know how important social media is to today’s youth. It can be easy to write social media off as a negative entity in their lives, one that creates a culture of comparison and false expectations.

While there could be some truth to that, it is important to meet your child where they’re at. Take the time to learn about the people they follow on their preferred social media platform—it could just be their friends, but there may be some public figures as well. 

Ask them what draws them to the people they follow, what content they like, and what they feel they get from social media. Through this conversation, you may learn that they love a musician who speaks candidly about mental health or that they worship an influencer who promotes heavy dieting. Whatever you uncover, you can now use it as an opening to continue the conversation on mental wellness. 

Research suggests that collaborating with your children on safe and healthy consumption of social media is a great way to promote mental health while keeping present with the era we live in.

Plus, taking interest in the things your child loves, even if it seems way out of your realm of comfort, can foster increased trust and closeness. 

Make Self-Care a Lifestyle

Let’s make this final tip a family affair. Turn self-care into a lifestyle in your household. Normalize meditation, take walks together as a family, and cultivate an environment where it is safe to name challenging feelings that come up.

Consider creating self-care rituals with each of your children. Maybe you get your nails done with your child and give them your undivided attention as you check in on their feelings. Perhaps you hit the gym with your child and grab lunch after to connect on recent happenings.

Whatever it is, making it feel as normal as possible will ensure self-care and mental health conversations become a regular occurrence.

A Word From Verywell

Feeling scared about your child's mental health is natural and you don't have to hold this fear alone. Consider seeking support for yourself from a trusted mental health professional. Alternatively, reaching out to a community of parents can also help in feeling more supported. Finally, remember that by even wanting to broach the topic of mental health with your children, you're already doing more than an amazing job.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Maich K, Davies AWJ, van Rhijn T. A relaxation station in every location. Interv Sch Clin. 2019;54(3):160-165. doi: 10.1177/1053451218767916

  3. O’Reilly M, Dogra N, Whiteman N, Hughes J, Eruyar S, Reilly P. Is social media bad for mental health and wellbeing? Exploring the perspectives of adolescents. Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2018;23(4):601-613. doi: 10.1177/1359104518775154

By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.