Talking to Your Child about Mental Health

Mother talks to teen

“Does your stomach hurt? Do you feel hot?”

For many parents, assessing how a child feels and talking about his or her physical health is often easier — tangible and quantifiable (where’s the thermometer?) — than asking about mental health.

Laine Young-Walker
Laine Young-Walker

But noting changes in behavior, asking questions and having open communication about mental health with your child is vital to supporting his or health from the inside out, according to Laine Young-Walker, MD, chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the MU School of Medicine.

Whether your child is 2 or 16, families need to help children navigate through hard emotions.

“Things that become a problem — sadness, anger, anxiety — are normal at first,” she said. “If you normalize communication about mental health, your child will know they can come to you when they need help.”

Young-Walker offers this advice for talking to teens about mental health.

Start the conversation, even when it’s not easy

If you’ve noticed a disturbing change in behavior patterns or habits in your child, take the initiative to ask questions. A conversation starter may be as simple as saying: “You seem anxious — is something going on?” or “I’ve sensed a change in you.”

Point out the change you have noticed — such as spending more time alone with less communication with family, not enjoying his or her favorite activities, or worse grades — and let your child know you care about whatever they are feeling.

Set a loving tone

Teens often view friends as more important than parents, but they still need you. Let your teen know it is important to you to know what is going on and that if he or she is struggling, you will be there to work through whatever they are going through together.

“When they seem sad or depressed, they may withdraw when you try to talk to them,” Young-Walker said.

But don’t hold back on reaching out and letting them know you are there.

Let your teen know it’s OK to talk about what they are feeling

The fear of the stigma of mental health often leaves teens hesitant to talk, so reinforce that whatever they are going through is OK.

“Teens don’t want to be different than anyone else,” Young-Walker said. “They want to fit in and belong, and they may be afraid that if they admit they are struggling, they will be viewed as different.”

Fears of what might come next, such as medication, if they admit their struggles may also leave teens hesitant to talk, so encourage them to address whatever they are feeling and not hold back.

“Tell your teen that it’s OK to talk about what’s going on,” she said. “Let him or her know, ‘I’m going to work with you to help you get to a better place.’”

If you think your teen needs more support or you are concerned for his or her safety, seek professional help. Contact a school counselor, seek a therapist or counselor through the MU Psychiatric Center. You can also ask your primary care provider for a referral.

The MU Bridge Program: School-Based Psychiatry, a program Young-Walker helped establish, can also offer timely support. Bringing psychiatric services directly into Boone County schools, the program connects families, school staff and MU psychiatrists and nurses to assess kids’ needs and provide immediate care without the six- to eight-week wait for an adolescent psychiatric appointment that would otherwise be typical in Boone County.

Young-Walker reminds families that when kids are experiencing mental illness, it’s biologically driven and not a choice the child is making. 

“If you are worried about your child, get an assessment from a professional,” Young-Walker said.

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