Starting the conversation about your mental illness with your child

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource has been developed to help parents to understand how mental illness can impact parenting and learn practical strategies to help maintain a strong relationship between parents and children. It has been developed with the guidance of family members with lived experience, practitioners and researchers.

Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

How do I explain my mental illness to my child?

The idea of talking to your child about your mental health difficulties can be daunting. You may feel understandably anxious or unsure about how to bring up the subject. But research, along with the lived experience of parents and children, shows that when parents talk openly about their struggles, in language their child can understand, it actually helps the child to cope better.1 It can also benefit children to make sense of the changes they observe in you when you’re unwell, to know how to help, and perhaps most importantly, to understand your illness is not their fault. Talking openly in an age-appropriate way can also help develop children’s resilience, which will ultimately benefit them as they navigate future challenges.2

Why is talking about mental illness important?

Every family is different, and it’s good to consider the different ways to approach a discussion and different times that might be best for you and your family. It can also be helpful to think about where and when you want to have the conversation. It should be at a time that you and your child feel safe and comfortable, and preferably somewhere you won’t be disturbed. For school-age children, this may be while you’re drawing together or building with blocks or Lego. If you’re explaining mental health to a teenager, it may be best to do so when you’re driving in the car together or cooking and eating dinner.

Reflecting beforehand on times that might work best for you and your family can help to ensure the conversation goes smoothly.

‘We talked while I was driving Sam to soccer. He could just listen and didn’t have to make eye contact, and I said we could talk more later if he liked. He said that would be good. So, the first “go” was good, I think.’

– Doug, parent, South Australia

What age should kids learn about mental health?

Your child’s need for information will change as they grow; but talking to your child about your mental health difficulties from an early age can help them to understand their own emotions and reduce stigma around mental illness.

Your child may come to you with their own questions about mental illness or from a desire to know more as they get older. They may also come with their own ideas about what is going on, from conversations with friends or information on the internet and social media.

For this reason, it’s helpful to think of this as an ongoing conversation, starting with an initial discussion that will lead to future conversations over time.

Reflecting beforehand on times that might work best for your family can help to ensure the conversation starts smoothly.

What might my child want to know about mental health?

During these conversations, your child is likely to ask about when and why you became unwell, how you were diagnosed, if mental illness can be caught or passed on, and what help you’re getting. Be prepared to talk about your treatment plan – and try to be positive. Children are often pleased to learn that you’re safe and are getting help, and relieved that your mental illness is not their fault.

Having an informed understanding of your own mental health can help you to answer your children confidently. It can be helpful to talk with your psychologist, counsellor, social worker or GP before starting these conversations. They can help you to think about the questions that might come up and how you could respond.

To learn more about the role of different mental health practitioners, view our suite of explainer videos.

What do you say when talking about mental health difficulties?

Before starting your conversation, it is important to think about the topics you may or may not feel comfortable talking about with your child. Consider:

  • What are you comfortable/prepared to talk about with your child? For example:
    • when you were diagnosed
    • how you’ve been acting lately
    • what your diagnosis means for you.
  • What might you be unsure about bringing up or talking about with your child? For example:
    • the reasons behind any arguments or conflict that you and your partner may have had lately
    • whether your children are at risk of developing the same mental illness as you.
  • What are you uncomfortable talking about with your child? For example:
    • traumatic events you may have experienced when you were younger that you feel might have contributed to your mental illness
    • some of the thoughts and feelings you experience because of your mental illness.

You might consider discussing your ideas with a trusted partner, family member, friend or a mental health professional who can help you to think about what you might/might not say.

Here are some suggestions on what to say when talking to your child about your mental health difficulties:

  • Discuss what’s happening to you and how it affects you. Remember, there’s no need to share everything – you get to decide how much to tell your child. Talking through what to say with your partner, a good friend or your mental health professional can be helpful.
  • Consider your child’s age and ability to understand the information you give them to ensure they feel relaxed and can understand the conversation. You can find more information on communicating with infants, toddlers, primary school-age children and teenagers in these fact sheets.
  • Think about the language you use. The Satellite Foundation website contains simple medical explanations for mental illness, which are a good way to compare mental illness with physical illness (and help to fight stigma).
  • Be clear that it’s not their fault, nor is it their responsibility to make you feel better.
  • Ask about their fears and worries and then make plans to address them. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers, however, let your child know that you don’t know right now but you’ll find out and come back to them. This is a great opportunity to role model help-seeking behaviour.
  • When looking for answers, discussing anything you’re unsure of with your mental health professional will enable you to feedback appropriate responses to your children’s questions.
  • Be reassuring and remind your child that you care about them and are getting help. It’s important that your child knows there is a plan and that you’re trying to make sure their needs will be met.
  • Let your child know that you’re there to answer their questions at any time and that there will be opportunities for more discussions over time.

Five mental health conversation starters

  • ‘I haven’t been feeling well lately. You might have noticed that I can get angry quickly. I want you to know it’s not your fault, but I would like to talk to you about why this happens to me.’
  • ‘I wanted to talk to you about the mental illness my doctor says I’m experiencing. Can I start by saying that I love you, but I know that my behaviour has been different lately and I wanted to explain why.’
  • ‘You might have noticed I’m sleeping a lot lately and not doing what I normally do around the house. I wanted to talk to you about this and wondered if you had any questions?’
  • ‘I know I haven’t been spending a lot of time with you all lately and I just wanted to have a chat with you about why.’
  • ‘I thought we should have a discussion around why I’ve been a bit agitated for the past day or so. It’s nothing you’ve done, but I’d like to explain why I’ve been this way.’

How to keep the conversation flowing

If your family isn’t used to talking, it might take some time to develop the skills and feel comfortable to have these conversations. Although discussions might be short, their meaning is very important. Often the first conversation about mental health is the most daunting, but it will lead to other smaller conversations that build on your family’s shared understandings over time.

Keep in mind that other trusted adults can also be helpful when attempting to explain your experiences of mental illness to your child. Consider grandparents, other family members or good friends who you could reach out to. They may be able to help you with what to say to your child about your mental illness, or support your child by reinforcing messages you want them to understand.

And remember, you’re not alone. There are countless sources of help and information on looking after your mental health, and many ways to share these findings with your family. If extra support is needed, you can ask your GP or a trusted mental health professional for guidance.


  1. Reupert, A. E., Maybery, D. J., & Kowalenko, N. M. (2013). Children whose parents have a mental illness: Prevalence, need and treatment. The Medical Journal of Australia Open, 1(Suppl 1), 7–9.
  2. Beyond Blue Ltd. (2017). Building resilience in children aged 0–12: A practice guide.

Discover more resources

Login to Emerging Minds Learning

Keep a list of your favourite resources for reference or try some of our courses.

Subscribe to our newsletters