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How to talk to your kids about mental health

Written by Jennifer Palisoc

It’s a conversation between parent and child that is not always easy to have. Learning how to talk to kids about mental health issues including depression, anxiety and substance use can be overwhelming for any parent.

But experts say talking openly with your kids is what can help you, help them.

“When parents don’t broach the issue, that puts the onus on the teen to raise it, which can be quite difficult for teens – even if they are in distress,” says Dr. David Kreindler, head of youth psychiatry at Sunnybrook. “By putting the subject on the table, it makes it clear that the topic is ’open for discussion.’”

When Maddie was a teen, having open and honest discussions with her parents helped her cope with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. “I know that I always have them by my side,” the now 25-year-old explains. “I’m very lucky to have had these conversations with my parents growing up. Talking to them helped me when I hit rock bottom.”

Here are a few tips from experts and youth on what to look out for, how to prepare for this conversation, what to say and how to get help.

Signs to watch out for

One in five students struggle with significant mental health issues.

“Mental illnesses are serious, debilitating health conditions,” says youth psychiatrist, Dr. Amy Cheung. “The most common mental illness, depression, is the leading cause of disability worldwide.”

Mental health concerns can impact school performance, learning and relationships.

Some may believe a child may just be “moody” or “going through a teenage phase” – but experts say, it’s important to pay attention to these important clues into what a child may be experiencing.

“Everyone, teens included, is entitled to a bad day or a bad week, but we should not expect that teens should go through prolonged episodes of low mood, anxiety or social withdrawal,” explains Dr. Mark Sinyor, psychiatrist in the mood and anxiety disorders program. “If parents are seeing trends in that direction, it’s important to check in with their teen to understand what is happening,”

Signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • Sadness/Irritability
  • Low energy/Fatigue
  • Low motivation/interest
  • Poor concentration
  • Change in appetite or sleep
  • Difficulty managing stress
  • Thoughts of death

Other mental health concerns in students include mood disorders, anxiety disorders, attention or behavioural issues as well as substance misuse, psychotic illnesses and eating disorders.

Why kids won’t always bring it up

“Children and teens sometimes don’t understand or know that what they’re experiencing is part of a mental illness,” explains Dr. Amy Cheung. “So, it’s important to help them identify signs and symptoms.”

“There’s a lot of self-judgement that happens with kids,” says Maddie. “It feels uncomfortable to say, ‘I’m not feeling well’ or ‘I feel really helpless in this situation.’”

Maddie adds, “It’s hard to admit something like that and say it out loud to ourselves, much less our parents. We don’t want them to worry, or to take away privileges because we’ve opened up about how we are feeling.”

“Youth are also worried that they won’t be believed,” says Dr. Cheung. “Often there’s stigma about mental illness and kids may have grown up in a family where very subtle or more derogatory comments about for example, anxiety, have been made. If this is the case, many teens won’t talk about it.”

How parents can plan ahead

An important part of preparing for the conversation is being open to your teen’s response and knowing about some of the resources and support services available for your child and family.

“Seek help in advance,” says Dr. Cheung. “Talk to a mental health care professional or doctor. If you’re not sure of what might be happening with your child, you can explain, ‘My child is doing this, or experiencing this, should I be concerned? Should I bring them in to see you?’”

As well, it is important to remember to remain calm.

“Young people don’t want their parents to ‘freak out’ or get angry,” says Maddie. “So, it can help kids feel more comfortable talking about what they’re going through if parents are calm.”

“The key is to create a safe space where a child can share feelings that are not minimized or ignored and are taken seriously,” says Dr. Cheung.

It’s also helpful for parents and teens to know they are not alone.  If youth disclose to their parents that they are feeling suicidal it is important to let them know that there is hope and that others with similar experiences have made it through too.  Telling them that they matter can make a big difference in helping them find a path to resilience.

How to start the conversation: What to say

So, how does a parent dive into such a difficult discussion?

“You just have to ask,” explains Dr. Cheung. “If you ask how they are doing in an open and accepting way, that can open the doorway to an important conversation with your child.”

“Educating teens on the symptoms of depression and anxiety can also help,” adds Dr. Cheung. “Letting them know that stress is a normal part of life, but if it is overwhelming, or keeping a teen from from sleeping, going out with friends, or preventing them from enjoying life – these are all signs to reach out for help.”

“If you are in distress, you can use a distraction technique, phone a friend, exercise, sleep on it. If it isn’t going away soon or, it’s really bad, you need to reach out further – to a trusted adult, to a doctor or in emergencies to a crisis line or an emergency room,” says Dr. Mark Sinyor.

“Just be straightforward, honest calm and try to listen without judgement,” says Maddie. “It can help your child understand that you’re there for them and that they can turn to you for help.”

If you need help in an emergency, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

About the author

Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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