Parent Support: How to talk to your child about their mental health
Parents play a vital role in identifying the early signs of a mental health issue and getting their child the support they need. Whilst mental health is not something that you can physically see and may be hard to understand from a more traditional health care perspective, it is important to remember that mental health problems are real, and that your child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. Young people may experience difficulties with their mental health from a range of factors, like internal factors such as having a personality type that leans towards negativity, perfectionism or self-doubt, or external factors like school or exam related pressures and parental pressure. Remember that a supportive family can make a big difference in how your child manages their mental health.
Here is a guide on how to best approach your child’s mental health.
Look out for signs
As a parent, it can be difficult to know the difference between your child going through a tough time or something more serious like anxiety or depression. Feeling down, anxious, angry or moody are all normal emotional for young people, but when these feelings last for long periods of time they may be cause for concern.
Look out for signs like:
- Withdrawal: being less interested and involved in activities they would normally enjoy
- Loss of appetite or sleep
- Having difficulties with concentration or motivation
- Feeling down or crying for no apparent reason
- Expressing negative, distressing or out-of-character thoughts
Start the conversation
Let your child know that you’re concerned and want to help. Acknowledge that opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can be hard and sometimes scary.
You can start with general and open questions like:
- How is school going?
- How are you feeling about exams?
- How are you getting on with your friends
To focus on more specific feelings, use “I” statements like:
- I’ve noticed that you seem a bit down lately, is there anything I can do?
- I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself lately, how are things?
Listen to what your child has to say and don’t rush to give advice. Let them know that you’re there to help however you can, and that you love them and care about their wellbeing. It’s important that you take your child’s feelings seriously – respect their words, show empathy and don’t judge too quickly. Lastly, it’s important to manage your own feelings. Children are often worried about their parents being upset, anxious, shocked, angry, etc. If your child can see that you’re able to respond calmly and listen, they will be more likely to start a conversation.
Seek help together
Encourage your child to get some support of they need it and tell them that you can work through the options together. You can ask for advice from a friend or family member who has dealt with a similar issue, or if it’s more serious, seek out professional help. Regardless if your child is going through some tough times or not, you should always be a part of your child’s ongoing support system. Check in with them regularly to see how they’re doing and remind them that you care.
What doesn’t help
It’s important that you do not do the following:
- Dismiss and minimize their feelings by saying things like “You don’t seem that bad to me”
- Trivialise their experience by pressuring them to “put a smile on their face” or “to get their act together”
- Speak in a patronizing tone of voice
- Try to cure them
- Compare them to their siblings by saying things like, “Your brother never had these problems. Why can’t you be more like him”
Headspace - National Youth Mental Health Foundation dedicated to improving the wellbeing of young Australians
Reach Out - Website that helps parents support their teenagers through everyday issues and tough times
Head to Health – Provides information, resources and services for mental health
Youth Beyond Blue - information about anxiety, depression and suicide for young people in Australia aged 12-25.
The Black Dog Institute - Dedicated to understanding, preventing and treating mental health