A Guide to Talking To Kids About Mental Health


A Guide to Talking To Kids About Mental Health

Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD
By Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD
Oct 07, 2019
A mom talking to her daughter about mental health in their backyard.

October 6th- October 12th is Mental Health Awareness Week. A week dedicated to providing educational resources towards the mental health conversation and helping to remove the stigma around mental illness.  RxSaver will be featuring articles throughout the week focused on mental health.

Millions of children in the United States deal with some type of mental illness. Here are some numbers:

  • 9.4% of children aged 2–17 years (approximately 6.1 million) have received a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • 7.4% of children aged 3–17 years (approximately 4.5 million) have a diagnosed behavior problem.
  • 7.1% of children aged 3–17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
  • 3.2% of children aged 3–17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have been diagnosed with a depression disorder.

That is a lot of kids. But here is some positive news: stigma around mental illness and psychological disorders is decreasing as more programs take aim at eradicating incorrect assumptions about mental health disorders and their treatments.

One of the best ways we can combat stigma around mental illness is by talking to our kids early and often about mental health and illness, as well as psychological treatment. The more we normalize these types of discussions about mental health, the better. Here are some ways to discuss mental health with kids.

Make Use of What’s Already in Front of You

Not sure how to start when talking to your kids about psychological health?

You can simply piggyback on what is already out there. Ask them what they think about the girl who looks sad in the cartoon they are watching. Ask them if they have any worries or concerns after listening to the news on the car radio with you. Did the school counselor send information home in your child’s backpack? Ask your kids what the counselor does. How does the counselor help students? Have your students ever had interactions with the counselors? What did they learn?

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Be Careful About the Language You Use in Everyday Life

It is pretty common to say things like: “He’s so crazy!” and “I am so depressed today,” and “She’s so OCD.” The problem with language like this is it can trivialize the very real problems psychological disorders can create. Be mindful of the words you use, and your kids will be too.

Be Open About Your Own Emotions

One way to help your kids become used to sharing their emotions is by sharing your own on a regular basis. In a developmentally appropriate manner (i.e., using simple brief concepts with young kids, and progressively more complex words and concepts with older kids), try talking clearly about your own feelings: “Geez, that hurt my feelings when I didn’t get invited to Jenny’s birthday party,” or “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with all the work deadlines I have this month,” or “I am so proud of the hard work you put into that homework assignment.” Need some help coming up with adjectives to describe emotions? Check out this cheat sheet.

Be Open About How You Manage Your Psychological Health

Try sharing with your kids what you do to manage your mental health, including taking mental health days. Sharing things like: “I’m going to be taking a walk this evening. It was a tough day at work, and the fresh air helps me feel less stressed.” or “I am feeling a little down today, I think I might call Grandma. Talking to her always helps me feel better.” Again, we want to keep these conversations developmentally appropriate, and our kids are not our therapists. However, sharing the healthy strategies we use to manage our emotions will provide them a template for when they need strategies to manage their own psychological health.

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Make Talking About Mental Health an Everyday Thing

We do not need to talk about the state of our kids’ mental health every single day, but it is best if it can be a pretty regular occurrence—say, a couple of times per week, for example. We want to get to a point where speaking about emotions and mental health is just as easy and normal as talking about the soccer team, your favorite TV show, or the new superhero movie you want to see.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • “What are you excited about these days?”
  • “What’s on your mind right now?”
  • “How would you describe your mood today?”
  • “What are you worried about?”

The possibilities are endless, and each family needs to find their own, unique language for talking about mental health. But here is a quick tip: Try asking questions that are open-ended, these tend to produce much more interesting conversations than those that can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.”

Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD

Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD

Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD, earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from CU-Boulder, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the University of Denver. She has experience working in hospitals, primary care, nursing homes and community mental health settings. She has been the owner and clinical director of her practice in Erie since 2006.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.