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Talking to a young person about their mental health

A guide for parents, carers, family members and guardians on how to talk to young people about their mental health and wellbeing.

Mae'r dudalen hon hefyd ar gael yn Gymraeg. This link will take you to a Welsh translation of this page.

Understanding mental health and wellbeing

While we all experience things differently, it helps to have a general understanding of these terms:

  • Mental health is about how we think, feel and behave. Our mental health is on a spectrum and can range from good to poor. We can also experience mental health problems.
  • Mental wellbeing is about how we're feeling right now, and how well we can cope with daily life. Our wellbeing can change from moment to moment, day to day, or month to month.

Our mental health and wellbeing can change all the time. Because of this, it can help to check in regularly and make time for young people to talk about how they're feeling. You don't have to wait until they're struggling.

Whether you're regularly checking in, or you're worried about a young person, this information will guide you through talking to them about their mental health.

This information is for parents, carers, family members and guardians who want to talk about mental health with a young person they're supporting.

If you're looking for information on talking to them about your own mental health, see our pages on parenting with a mental health problem.

The hardest step while struggling with mental health is being able to talk about it. But it's a good and rewarding thing to do, and it takes the stigma away from it.

Signs a young person might be experiencing poor mental health

It can be hard to know if a young person is struggling with their mental health or wellbeing. We all act in different ways when we're going through a tough time.

You might notice some of the following signs, you might see something different, or you might not notice anything at all. These signs could also be linked to a young person's physical health, or something else entirely.

Some of the ways they might act differently include:

  • Seeming distant, or not themselves
  • Not meeting up with friends or partners
  • Spending more time alone than usual
  • Not chatting, smiling or laughing as much
  • Seeming less confident
  • Talking about feelings that worry you
  • Losing interest in or not doing activities they normally love
  • Crying, shouting or feeling angry
  • Being restless
  • Smoking, drinking, or using drugs when they didn't before
  • Using social media in a different way, or more or less than before

Just checking on their [young peron's] wellbeing is so simple but it's very, very important to do that – Muwahhid, 15

Some of the physical changes you might notice include:

  • Not dressing with as much care as they used to
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Looking tired
  • Not washing or taking care of themselves like they used to
  • Hurting themselves on purpose
  • Repetitive behaviour, like tapping or checking things a lot

It can be difficult to pick up on signs, especially if you don't live with them or spend lots of time with them.

Some young people might also ‘hide’ signs they're struggling, which is why it helps to know how to talk openly with them about mental health. Just because they don't show any signs, it doesn't mean you shouldn't check in with them.

How to start a conversation about their mental health

It's okay to feel uncertain about talking about mental health – you're not alone.

If you're worried about speaking to a young person about their mental health and wellbeing, it can help to feel prepared. You don't need to have a long conversation every time, you might just want to check in to see how they're feeling.

Take a look at the advice below, especially if it's your first time talking to them:

  • Try to find a time and place that suits you both. The time may never feel perfect, but it can help if you both feel calm and comfortable. This could mean talking in a quiet place, or it could mean doing an activity together.
  • It can help to practise what you want to say. You could practise in your head or aloud with someone you know. You could write things down too, or talk to someone on a helpline, like the YoungMinds Parents and Carers Helpline.
  • There's no perfect way to begin a conversation. However you choose to do it, try your best to start in a calm and open-minded way. You might not understand exactly what they're going through, and that's okay.
  • Try not to feel disheartened at your first attempt. They might not respond well the first time, or might not want to engage at all. You can try again at a different time when they're ready.
  • Give them the space they need. Pressuring them to talk can push them away. Let them know you're there for them and let them come to you. It's important to respect their boundaries – there are some things they might not want to share or talk about with you.

My [younger] brother doesn't like talking. I can see him struggle too but he doesn't want to talk, so I don't push it. I will be here for him until he wants to talk.

What feels like the best way of talking?

The first thing to consider is what feels best for them – ask them what they'd find most comfortable. It's always better to ask than assume you know what they need.

You might want to talk face-to face, but if either of you find this difficult or overwhelming you could:

  • Talk on the phone
  • Send a text
  • Write a letter
  • Talk while walking or driving
  • Talk during an activity together, like cooking, playing a game, or watching TV

Remember to take breaks or set up regular talking times – it doesn't have to be one long conversation.

I've always found just being present with them, giving them the attention they need, and doing an activity together allows them to open up and relax. I can be myself around them and not focus heavily on the conversation being about their mental health.

What could I say to begin with?

If you're feeling nervous about talking to them, you might feel more confident knowing how you could start the conversation.

You might have already noticed some signs of poor mental health or wellbeing. You could consider phrases like:

  • “This might be difficult for us to talk about, but I'd like to talk to you about something.”
  • “I noticed you've been feeling ___ lately. I wondered if you wanted to talk about it?”
  • “You've not seemed yourself in the past couple of weeks. Is there anything you want to talk about?”
  • “I thought you were acting a little differently recently. I know you might feel like you can't talk to me, but I can help you find people you can contact if you want to talk about ___.”

You could also find information or examples from something on TV, online or in a book that they might relate to. For example, you could ask “have you been watching the series about…”. Or ask “what do you think about the character who's experiencing…”.

You might be checking in regularly with them, even when things seem to be going well. You could consider phrases like:

  • “How are things going at school/college/training?”
  • “If you ever need to talk to anyone, you know that I'm here for you?”
  • “It seems like you're feeling okay about ___, but you can always talk to me if you want to.”
  • “You seem really happy about ___! I'd love to hear more about it.”
  • “I remember you told me that you were upset about ___ last week. How are you feeling about it now?”

What could I say after we've talked?

Whether it's the first time you've spoken or it's a regular chat, there are different ways you can end a conversation and things you can do afterwards:

  • Reassure them that you're still there for them.
  • Tell them that you'll be there to support them.
  • Ask how you can help them and what they would like from you.
  • Ask if they want your help getting support from someone else, like a teacher or doctor.
  • Do something afterwards together that you both enjoy.
  • Be patient if they feel upset or if the chat doesn't end calmly.
  • Remind them that there is help and you will get through it together.

Remember that you can also finish by pausing to take a break.

You might both need some time to reflect, but could pick up the conversation again later.

How to be a good listener

One of the best things you can do is listen to the young person you want to support. To show that you're listening, you can:

  • Give them your full attention. Make sure you won't be distracted, for example by turning off your phone notifications. You could do an activity with them while you speak, as long as you're doing it together – it shouldn't be something one-sided.
  • Try to show you're open and not judgemental. Relax your body with positive body language, for example uncrossing your arms or sitting at the same level as them.
  • Allow them to talk when they want to. You shouldn't feel like you have to talk when they're silent. Let them pause or give long explanations if they need to.
  • Try to stop yourself from talking too much. Let them speak or ask open questions to let them explain. For example, you might say “what's that like for you?”.
  • Repeat some parts aloud. After they tell you something, repeating it back can help you check you understand what they mean. It also helps to show them that you're listening.
  • Remember that you don't need to fix problems immediately. They may just need to speak about how they're feeling right now.

It can take time to figure out the best ways to talk to each other. There is no perfect time or way to talk – you're trying the best you can.

Approaching people with mental health problems in an open and compassionate manner really helps. I've come across a few mental health workers who haven't been compassionate and open with me, so it didn't feel like I could open up to them.

If they don't want to talk about mental health

It can be hard if a young person doesn't want to talk, or if they change their mind about talking. It isn't your fault if they don't want to talk and you're not doing anything wrong.

They might feel more comfortable talking to or getting support from someone else. Or it could be that they don't feel ready to talk.

You might want to try different ways of starting a conversation. Or you might need to be patient and build trust with them over time. If you keep showing you're there for them, they may feel more able to open up to you.

Remember that sometimes there might be a reason behind not wanting to talk:

  • Talking when either of you are feeling very stressed can be unhelpful. You might feel stressed by home life or work, they might feel stressed by homework or problems with their relationships. Try to find a time to talk when you're both feeling calm. If things are getting too much, suggest taking a break and agreeing to talk again at another time.
  • Some of us struggle to share things with people that care for us. They might find it really hard because they don't want you to worry. Remind them it's okay to talk to a different person, but that you're here when they're ready. There are lots of organisations who young people can talk to on our useful contacts page. You could send the page to them by text message or email.
  • Finding things difficult at home can make it harder for them to talk. Some young people might struggle to talk because of difficulties at home. You could suggest talking elsewhere, like in a park or open space. Or they might find it easier to talk to other trusted adults, like teachers or other relatives.

Helping a young person in a mental health crisis

If you're supporting a young person who is feeling overwhelmed, or feeling like they want to hurt themself, help is available for them as well as you. You both deserve help as soon as you need it.

To talk with someone about what's happening, you can:

If you feel worried that they may attempt suicide, or have seriously hurt themself, this is an emergency. You can:

  • Call 999 and ask for an ambulance.
  • Go straight to A&E, if you can.

Mental health emergencies are serious. You aren't wasting anyone's time.

Other ways to offer support

There are many ways you can help, but the best thing you can do is ask them what they want. Different people will want support in different ways, at different times. You could:

  • Help them with practical things, like making doctor's appointments.
  • Encourage them to do things they enjoy, like watching a film or doing sport.
  • Offer support for stressful things, like schoolwork and exams.
  • Check up on their physical health, like making sure they're eating well and sleeping enough.
  • Support their ability to help themselves, which can also improve their confidence. Find tips and ideas to share with them in our information hub for young people on looking after yourself.
  • Talk about how you're feeling – being open about your own mental health and wellbeing might help them to open up too.

Talking about mental health and wellbeing with them is important, but remember that it's only one part of your lives. Keep talking about things you've always talked about together, and treat them the same as before.

As a young person experiencing mental health problems, I found talking with others incredibly difficult. What helped me open up, was to learn about other people's experiences. It gave me the confidence to open up and talk.

Taking care of your own mental health and wellbeing is an important way of supporting them. Not only does it set a good example, but it allows you to feel more able to help someone else. Supporting others can be difficult when you're experiencing poor mental health yourself.

Looking after your own mental health

See Wellbeing tips

Where can I find more help and support?

After talking to a young person, you might feel they need more support than you can offer. Here are some things that could help:

This information was published in August 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

The quotes on this page are from young people we spoke to while making this information. They've given us their consent to use their quotes in our information. The words, experiences and opinions in the quotes are not related to the young people shown in any of the photographs we use.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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