How to Teach Your Kids to Let You Know When They’re Struggling

depressed girl on the phone in the hallway

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As parents, we want to be a safe place for our kids to share their feelings and any mental health challenges they are experiencing. Still, sometimes it can be hard to initiate conversations around mental health—to know what types of questions to ask, and to understand how to engage with your kids in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

Yet engaging with our kids about their mental health is vital, and isn’t something we can shy away from. In fact, according to the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), supportive and caring relationships with family and friends is one significant factor that protects kids against suicide and other mental health crises.

Here are some ideas about how to tackle these conversations and create a space where kids can come to you when they are struggling.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What to Know About Kids and Mental Health

Kids have always dealt with mental health struggles, but these struggles have deepened and come into the public light in a more significant way as the stigma surrounding mental health shrinks.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began—between 2016 and 2020—there was a steep increase in mental health diagnoses issues in kids, such as depression and anxiety. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, these issues intensified, with noted increases in psychiatric episodes among kids, including children needing emergency psychiatric care and psychotropic medication.

This is why the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP)—in partnership with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists and Children’s Hospital Association—declared a mental health emergency among the nation’s children in 2021.

In their declaration, they mention the rising number of children have been struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, and suicidal ideation over the past few years. As the AAP notes, the rates of suicide attempts and suicide among kids have increased significantly, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24.

The AAP is calling on institutions and policymakers to double down on efforts to support children during this time, including increased mental health screenings, and more widespread mental health services, particularly in underserved communities.

Signs Your Child Is Struggling With Their Mental Health

While pediatricians, teachers, caregivers, and other members of the community can provide care for kids’ mental health, parents are often the first line of defense when it comes to identifying mental health issues in children.

Most parents know in their gut when something isn’t right with their kids, but sometimes the signs can be hard to pinpoint. Not only that but signs and symptoms can vary according to how old your child is and what their personality is like.

Signs of mental health struggles in younger kids may include:

  • Increased tantrums, moodiness, and behavioral problems
  • More frequent complaints of tummy aches or headaches
  • Vocalizing fears and concerns more often than usual
  • Constantly replaying scary scenarios or feeling like something bad is going to happen
  • Sleep disturbances, such as nightmares, trouble falling asleep, or sleep more than usual
  • Trouble sitting still
  • Seeming noticeably less social than other kids and having trouble making friends
  • Struggling at school, academically and socially
  • Regression (engaging in the behaviors of an even younger child)

Signs of mental health struggles in adolescents may include:

  • Sleep changes (e.g., sleeping more than usual or hardly at all)
  • Less engaged in activities they previously enjoyed
  • Less social than normal, and may actively avoid socializing with others
  • Neglecting personal appearance
  • Marked changes in mood
  • Behavioral problems
  • Weight and appetite changes (e.g., may be obsessive about what they eat, or exercise obsessively)
  • Increased smoking and/or drug use
  • Increased engagement in risky activities
  • May show signs of mania, such as increased mood and energy, along with an inability to sleep
  • May show signs of delusion, including hearing voices in their head
  • Self-harm activities (e.g., purposefully cutting the skin or burning flesh)
  • Suicidal thoughts

Additionally, it’s critically important that you understand the potential signs of suicide in children. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Suicide ideation, which may include talking about suicide, drawing pictures of it, and writing about it
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Trouble focusing
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Reckless or violent behavior
  • Increased reliance on drugs or alcohol
  • Talking about or threatening to hurt oneself
  • Sharing any troubling or out-of-character thoughts
  • Giving away possessions
  • Expressing the feeling that they’d rather not exist
  • Increased interest in weapons

How Parents Can Approach Mental Health Conversations

If you suspect your child is struggling with their mental health, it can be difficult to know how to broach a discussion or how to create an atmosphere where your child will come to you with any difficult feelings.

You don’t want to come across as too pushy, and you certainly don’t want your child to feel like they are being criticized or that they are in trouble for how they feel.

Below are some ways to create an atmosphere where your child is more likely to open up to you and share what they are struggling with.

Pick the Right Time

Most kids don’t want to have a potentially difficult discussion when they’ve first gotten home from school or when they are involved in an engrossing activity. It’s best to pick a time when your child is relaxed and doesn’t have other responsibilities. Many teens might be more likely to open up late at night, for example.

Try Different Settings

Knocking on your child’s bedroom door out of the blue and initiating a talk isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes locations outside the home are a better idea. Many kids will open up during a car ride, where they don’t have to look at you directly and are distracted by the drive.

Others will open up during a walk outside. Of course, some kids will feel most comfortable chatting at home, when it’s the right time for them.

Be Open and Non-Judgmental

As you listen to your child’s feelings, try to do less talking and more listening. At first, you may not want to offer advice unless your child asks for it. Most of all, listen with the intent to understand, not to correct your child, in order to create an atmosphere where your child feels safe and knows that their feelings can be trusted.

Share Your Own Experiences Growing Up

The AAP suggests sharing your own feelings and mental health struggles from when you were your child’s age. This can help build trust between you and your child, and can help them feel that they are not alone in their struggles.

Make Sure They Know That It’s OK to Feel Down

Many kids don’t want to share their mental health struggles because they feel that they need to be perfect and because they don’t want to be a burden to anyone.

Make sure your child knows that there is nothing wrong with experiencing a mental health challenge. If your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts, assure them that it's OK to talk about what they're feeling and that sharing how they feel is both necessary and brave.

Where to Go From Here

Besides having honest talks with your child and creating a general atmosphere of trust around difficult emotions, there are some actions and preventative measures you should take as you notice mental health concerns emerging in your child.

Here are some tips:

  • Don’t wait to take action if your child is struggling
  • The first person to reach out to is usually your child’s pediatrician; they can help you understand your child’s symptoms, and what further actions need to be taken
  • You can also consider sharing your concerns with your child’s teacher or a school psychologist
  • If your child is in a mental health crisis or appears to be considering suicide, you may not be able to wait to schedule a visit with your pediatrician
  • If your child is reluctant to leave the house or feels more comfortable at home, they might prefer a telehealth appointment with either their pediatrician or a mental health professional

Press Play for Advice On Raising Resilient Children

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring actress Cobie Smulders, shares how to raise resilient kids. Click below to listen now.

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A Word From Verywell

Watching your child struggle with their mental health can be alarming and truly heartbreaking. You should know that you aren’t alone, and that help is out there for your child. Just taking the time to consider how to help your child means that you are a good parent and that you are doing everything you can to make sure your child will be OK. Again, if you have any further concerns, please reach out to your pediatrician, and if your child is in a mental health crisis, please connect with emergency services right away.

9 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.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Suicide: Blueprint for Youth Suicide Prevention.

  2. Lebrun-Harris LA, Ghandour RM, Kogan MD, et al. Five-Year Trends in US Children’s Health and Well-being, 2016-2020. JAMA Pediatrics. 2022;176(7):e220056.

  3. Leith T, Brieger K, Malas N, et al. Increased prevalence and severity of psychiatric illness in hospitalized youth during COVID-19. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2022;27(3):804-812. doi:10.1177/13591045221076889

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Suicide: Blueprint for Youth Suicide Prevention.

  6. National Institute of Mental Health. Children and Mental Health: Is This Just a Stage?

  7. New York State Department of Health. Suicide Prevention, Children Ages 10 to 19 Years.

  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. Mental Health and Teens: Watch for Danger Signs.

  9. American Academy of Pediatrics. Teen Suicide Risk: What Parents Should Know.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.