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How to talk to young children about mental health

Thursday 22 February 2018

A mother and her young daughter sit on the back veranda talking, backs to the camera.
Talking to kids about their mental and emotional wellbeing from a young age can set them up for ongoing good health.

Having good mental health is a key part of overall wellbeing for children and adults alike.

Some people find it hard to talk to kids about mental health, because they’re worried the topic might be upsetting, they don’t know how to talk about it or they think it’s something kids don’t need to know about.  But talking to children about mental health from a young age can help them understand their emotions, become more resilient, reduce stigma about mental illness, and teach them how to look after themselves mentally as well as physically.

Learning about mental wellbeing is just as important for kids as learning about physical health, and there are simple ways to make this topic a normal part of everyday conversation with children. Read on for tips on talking about mental health with children.

Talking about emotions

As toddlers and children grow up, they learn about their bodies, their emotions and their place in the world. Emotional development is a key part of healthy growing up and developing mental wellbeing.

From a young age, children start to learn what emotions and feelings are. Even babies experience basic emotions, like joy and fear. You can help children learn about what emotions are and why they happen by talking to them about how they are feeling.

Throughout the day, acknowledge how you and they are feeling by naming emotions using simple words. For example, “I can see you are feeling angry about it,” or “I am sad because I lost my hat.” Let them know that it is normal to feel different emotions in different situations.

You can also talk to children about how emotions make them feel in their body. Does being sad make them feel tired, or does excitement give them butterflies in their tummy? What emotion do they feel when they can’t stop smiling about something? This can help them understand what emotions they are feeling and why, and begin to see the connection between how they feel in their mind and in their body.

One way children develop resilience is by learning how to manage their emotions. This doesn’t mean teaching them to feel fewer emotions, but instead teaching them to recognise how different emotions make them act and behave, and finding ways to manage their feelings in a healthy way. beyondblue, Kids Matterand Raising Childrenhave tips on how to help children learn to manage their feelings like:

  • expressing their emotions creatively through drawing or storytelling
  • slowing their breathing down by blowing bubbles or pretending to blow out candles
  • listening to music that calms them down
  • or doing some exercise to release ‘feel good’ hormones.

A small girl rests her arms and face on the base of a swing, looking sad.

Talking about mental health

Talking with children about mental health can help reduce feelings of stigma and judgement about mental illness as they grow older. This can help them and those around them develop mental wellbeing, and encourage them to seek help with their mental health if they ever need to.

You can help your children be aware of mental health by talking about it as a normal part of life. In the same way you talk to them about eating vegetables to keep their body healthy and strong, share with them ways they can be mentally healthy. They can practise being mindful to help calm their thoughts, go to bed on time so they don’t feel tired and cranky the next day, or talk with the family about how they felt each day over dinner.    

As children get older and begin to learn about their body and physical illnesses, you can explain to them that sometimes people become unwell in a way that effects how they feel emotionally, think and behave, too. Let them know that it’s common for people to experience an illness like depression or anxiety, just like it’s common to get a cold or the flu, and that doctors can help these people to feel better.

Think about the words you use and teach your children to describe someone who might be mentally ill or behaving in an unexpected way. Try to avoid words like ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’ or ‘nutter’. This kind of negative language can be offensive and hurtful to people with mental illness, and can make mental health problems seem embarrassing or morally wrong, which could discourage children from getting help in the future if they need it.

As your child grows up, encourage them to develop ‘help-seeking behaviours’ when they’re not feeling well. This might be telling you or another trusted adult if something is bothering them, identifying when situations don’t make them feel good and finding ways to solve the problem, or doing something that makes them feel calmer when they are upset like being active or doing something creative.

Three generations of a family sits around the dinner table talking and smiling.

Resources for when your child is unwell

If you’re worried that your child is mentally unwell, there are a number of resources to help you help them. You can speak with your GP about what you’ve noticed, talk to a psychologist or visit Kids Helpline, headspace, SANE Australia or ReachOut.com.

The links below provide more information about children and mental health.  

Health Direct: Kids and mental health

Raising Children: Children’s mental health

Raising Children: Signs your child might need help with mental health

Kids Matter: Should I be concerned?

beyondblue: Child mental health checklist

beyondblue: Mental health issues age 1-5

beyondblue: Mental health conditions in children aged 6-12

Head to Health: Supporting children

A class of kids do 'butterfly' pose on yoga mats.

Resources for when someone close to your child is unwell

There are resources to help you talk to and care for your child if you or someone close to your child is mentally unwell. You can talk to your GP or a psychologist, or seek help from organisations that offer support to children affected by mental illness. You can find more information at:

beyondblue: Healthy families

Raising Children: Parenting with a mental illness

Kids Matter: Supporting children of parents with a mental illness

Children of Parents with a Mental Illness

Talking about mental illness with your child

Last updated: 6 March 2018