Tags: Health Relationships

“It's about listening without judgment and not trying to fix the problem. Sometimes a young person just wants to share what's going on. It's important to sit back and really listen.”—Annie Wylie, ReachOut

Key points

  • Start early—normalise conversations about mental health by making it part of your everyday conversation with your kids.

  • When you’re initiating conversations about mental health with your kids, try to make sure you’re in the right headspace. Find a time when you’re free of distraction, and choose a setting where you and your child both feel comfortable.
  • Remember that you might not be the best person to help your child, but if they do open up, make sure you listen without judgement.

The pandemic wasn’t easy for anyone, but it was particularly tough on our kids. A study from the Australian National University found that 71 percent of parents and carers reported their teenagers experienced worsening mental health during COVID-19.

Young adults struggled too, with findings from the most recent Census revealing those aged 16 to 34 reported far higher levels of psychological distress than any other age group. These findings correlate with those from the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, conducted in partnership with Deakin University, providing further evidence that we’re experiencing a mental health epidemic—and it’s affecting our kids.

None of which is pleasant reading for any parent. But what’s the best way to support your children to look after their mental health and wellbeing? Here, experts provide strategies and tips to help you initiate and have conversations about mental health with your kids.

Start early

Just because your child isn’t forthcoming with information doesn’t mean you can afford to shy away from talking about mental health, insists Millie Catania, a coach for the mental health program MindStep, delivered by Australian Unity’s partner Remedy Healthcare.

“There's no age that's too young to start the mental health conversation,” says Millie. She advocates diving in early to encourage your kids to view their mental health as an everyday consideration. Just as your kids learn that regular exercise or a balanced diet are good for your physical health, she says, “they can learn there are ways that you can support your mental health. Keep having frequent, simple, straightforward conversations with them. Make it part of everyday life.”

Annie Wylie from ReachOut, an online mental health service aimed at teenagers and young adults, agrees that building awareness of mental health at an early age establishes a foundation of understanding.

“Over the years as your child grows up, you're able to continually build on that conversation and bring things up in times of distress, sadness or anger, when they might need a little bit of extra support,” she says.

Kicking it off

If you’re unsure how to start the conversation, Annie recommends simply talking about your child’s feelings or emotions. “That's really relatable to everybody and is also appropriate for younger kids,” she says.

From that jumping-off point, you can then start to ask open-ended questions that are designed to elicit more than a monosyllabic grunt in reply.

“Rather than just asking, ‘How was your day?’, it’s about delving into that a little bit more. ‘How did you feel at soccer training?’ or ‘You had to sit that hard test at school today. How did you feel afterwards?’” explains Annie.

Keep score

Another strategy is asking your child to rate how they feel out of 10. The beauty of this is that it gives you the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, suggests Annie. “If they say, ‘Actually, I reckon I'm a three out of 10 today,’ you can ask why that is and it might give you an insight as to what's happening at school, in their friendship groups, in their life.”

This strategy can also give you an insight into the bigger picture by helping you to track how your child is doing over time. Everyone can have a bad day, but consistently low mood scores might alert you to a problem that requires further investigation.

Pick your moment

If you do feel there’s a potential issue you need to discuss, pick the right moment. It’s a tricky subject, so don’t attempt to tackle it when you’re stressed out or scrambling to make the school drop-off. You need to be distraction-free and in the right headspace, as well as being in a setting where your child feels comfortable too.

Annie recommends chatting in the car or during a walk, as the lack of eye contact can make the conversation feel less confronting. “Choose the right time for you,” she advises. “It's okay to wait a day longer if it’ll make the conversation better.”

Tackling an issue

If you suspect there’s a problem, Annie suggests you mention that you've noticed a change in your child’s behaviour and ask if they’re open to sharing any info with you. Reconcile yourself to the fact that you might not be their ideal confidant for this matter and let your kid know that’s perfectly okay.

“It's about acknowledging that there might be other trusted adults in their life that might be good for them to talk to—an aunt or uncle, community leader or sports coach—and connecting them with those people,” says Annie.

Listen without judgement

If your child has a problem, you’ll naturally want to solve it. But that’s not your best initial response. “It's about listening without judgment and not trying to fix the problem. Sometimes a young person just wants to share what's going on,” says Annie. “It's important to sit back and really listen.”

Don’t be dismissive or judgemental—remember a 16-year-old will have radically different life priorities to a 45-year-old. Don’t worry either if you struggling to find any advice to dispense. Annie says: “It's okay to be empathetic and say: ‘Oh, thank you so much for sharing. I'm sorry that you're going through that. I'd love to take some time to research that.’ A young person is not going to see that as weakness, but as a strength that you're going to go away and really consider what's happening to them.”

Whatever your child is going through, you can offer practical support by making sure they’re nailing all the basics in terms of sufficient sleep, a balanced diet and regular exercise—and that you are too. Concludes Millie: “As a parent, you're the child's number-one role model. So it's important that you model positive behaviours and good self-care practices, because your kids will look up to you.”


Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.