How To Talk To Your Children About Mental Health
A lot of things go unsaid between young people and their parents, especially when it comes to mental health. Our Fathers Campaign aims to open up conversations between parents and young people, particularly fathers and sons, to help identify mental health issues and raise awareness of the support services available.
What is good mental health?
A young person who has good mental health is more likely to have better emotional and social wellbeing and be able to cope with change and challenges.
How can dads help?
The information below will help fathers, mothers and other family members understand and respond to the mental health needs of the young people in their lives.
What contributes to mental health issues for young people?
There is no single explanation for why some young people experience difficulties with their mental health. Often mental health issues result from a combination of factors. Some factors may be internal, like having a family history of mental health issues or a personality type that tends towards negativity, perfectionism or self-doubt. Other factors are external, and include things such as:
- a relationship break-up
- school or exam related pressures
- drug and alcohol use or experimentation
- experiences of bullying or abuse at school/work, including bullying or abuse related to sexuality or gender identity
- pressures and influences from others, including on social media, affecting personal image
- traumatic events (e.g., natural disaster, serious accident, a physical or sexual assault or losing someone close to them).
It’s important to remember that just because a young person is going through a tough time, it doesn’t mean they will develop mental health issues. A supportive family can make a big difference to how well a young person copes with these kinds of events.
What are the warning signs that a young person might be experiencing mental health issues?
As a parent, it can often be hard to know the difference between normal behaviour, such as occasional moodiness and irritability, and an emerging mental health issue. Feeling down, tense, angry, anxious or moody are all normal emotions for young people, but when these feelings persist for long periods of time (and if they begin to interfere with daily life) they may be cause for concern.
Keep an eye out for significant changes that last at least a few weeks, such as:
- being less interested and involved in activities they would normally enjoy
- changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
- being easily irritated or angry
- finding their performance at school, TAFE, university or work is not as good as it once was
- involving themselves in risky behaviour they would usually avoid, such as taking drugs or drinking too much alcohol
- having difficulties with concentration or motivation
- seeming unusually stressed or worried, or feeling down or crying for no apparent reason
- expressing negative, distressing or out-of-character thoughts.
What can I do to encourage my young person to talk about their mental health?
Raising sensitive issues with young people can be challenging. It’s important that young people feel comfortable and supported to talk about their mental health.
Here are some things you can do to encourage this:
- Think about how you can talk about and manage your own feelings. Often young people are worried about their parents being upset, anxious, overwhelmed, shocked, angry, blaming, etc. If a young person can see that their parent might be able to respond calmly and listen they are more likely to begin a conversation. If you’re not sure how to respond you can contact support services to seek advice about how to do this.
- Be available without being intrusive.
- Spend regular time with them – even doing just one activity a week together can help to keep the lines of communication open.
- Show that you are interested in what’s happening in their life and try not to focus on things that you think are a problem.
- Take their feelings seriously – show empathy, listen carefully and don’t judge (it can be more useful at times to say nothing than to jump in with answers or solutions).
- Encourage exercise, healthy eating, regular sleep and doing things they enjoy – this will help their physical health as well as mental health.
- Encourage and support positive friendships.
- Let them know that you love them. They may not always admit it but this is likely to be very important to them.
- Think about a good time and place to talk about sensitive subjects. For example, would they find it easier to talk while driving or going for a walk? Would they prefer to be out of the house with no interruptions? Would they prefer to have someone else there for support?
What can I say to start a conversation with my young person about their mental health?
There is no perfect way to start a conversation about mental health with a young person.
Sometimes it can be helpful to begin with general and open question such as:
- How is [e.g., school/sport] going?
- How are you getting on with [e.g., your friends/your siblings]?
- How are you feeling about [e.g., studying/exams]?
To focus on more specific thoughts and feelings, you could try using ‘I’ statements such as:
- I’ve noticed that you seem to have a lot on your mind lately. I’m happy to talk or listen and see if I can help.
- It seems like you [haven’t been yourself lately/have been up and down], how are things?
- You seem [anxious/sad], what is happening for you? We can work it out together.
- It’s ok if you don’t want to talk to me, you could talk to [trusted/known adult]. I will keep letting you know I love you and am concerned.
How you talk with your young person will depend on their age and understanding – the language you use should feel natural. If your young person opens up about their mental health, reassure them early on that you’re glad and relieved that they’re talking to you.
How should I respond to my young person if I am worried about their mental health and safety?
Having conversations about mental health can be scary for everyone. Here are some things you can say to your young person if you are worried about their mental health and safety:
- Let them know that you are concerned.
- Remind them that talking about a problem can help.
- Talk openly and honestly with them.
- Acknowledge that opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can be hard and sometimes scary
- Reassure them that you will be there for them and ask what they need from you (they might not know what they need).
- If you are worried about suicide, ask direct questions. For example, ‘Have you ever thought about death?’ or ‘Have you ever thought about ending your life?’ (If you are not sure how you might feel hearing ‘yes’ to this question seek professional support to help you manage the conversation.)
- Offer to help them find information and an appropriate service, such as headspace, and offer to attend the service with them if they want.
Some young people might deny there is anything wrong and/or refuse help. You could suggest other people the young person could talk to, for example, a trusted adult, a GP or eheadspace
It’s okay to raise your concerns again and again. Opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can take some time so it’s important to be persistent.
What services are available?
headspace can provide face-to-face, online and telephone information and support to young people aged 12 to 25 years and their family and friends through:
headspace centres provide face-to-face information, support and services to young people and their families and friends. They are designed to create an environment where young people feel comfortable and each centre delivers support to young people in four areas: mental health, physical health, work and study, and alcohol and other drugs. Each of the 99 headspace centres across metropolitan, regional and rural areas of Australia have services that are confidential and are either free or have a low cost. Find your nearest headspace centre here.
headspace.org.au has information and resources for young people and their family and friends about mental and physical health, work and study, drugs and alcohol, how to get help and how family and friends can support a young person.
eheadspace is a national online and telephone support service staffed by a range of experienced youth and mental health professionals and it’s available for young people who aren't able to access a headspace centre or who would prefer to get help via online chat, email or phone. eheadspace can also assist families and friends in supporting a young person they are worried about. Find out more and access eheadspace here.
When you look after yourself you have greater patience and can offer a more considered approach to helping a young person. Families and friends supporting young people should remember their own needs and know where to get information and support for themselves.
Here are some ways you can look after your own health and wellbeing:
- Remind yourself that there is no such thing as a PERFECT parent.
- Eat well and drink plenty of water.
- Get a good night’s sleep.
- Make time every day to do something you enjoy.
- Ask for help or support for yourself from family and friends, or your GP or counsellor.
One of the most effective ways to support a healthy headspace is to model healthy behaviours yourself.
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.