Talking to your primary school-aged child about your mental health difficulties

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.

It is natural to wonder about how to talk to your children about your mental health difficulties. Primary school-aged children are naturally curious and may have lots of questions which may be uncomfortable to answer. This resource has been developed to help you prepare for and feel confident about these conversations.

Primary school-aged children have more emotional maturity than toddlers and preschoolers but may still find emotions overwhelming at times. When you’re experiencing mental health difficulties, it’s important to become familiar with how your symptoms affect your emotions and mood; in particular, your behaviour, facial expressions and tone of voice, as these are the changes that will be most noticed by a child of this age.

Are you quick to anger or do you spend more time in bed? It can be difficult to monitor these things when you’re struggling, so it’s helpful to prepare for these moments. When you’re feeling well, take some time to reflect on the symptoms you experience, the behaviours that your child may see and hear and how these might affect how they feel. You may find it helpful to talk about this with a partner, friend or your GP.

To learn more about the role of a GP, watch this video.

Having conversations with children about mental illness early in life can help remove stigma and encourage them to ask for help if they need it.

Understanding what your child notices and experiences

Primary school-aged children are very perceptive and pick up on even slight changes in their parent’s behaviours and body language. Children tend to believe they are somehow at fault for their parent’s behaviour and can think they’re responsible for making you feel better. It’s important for them to know that your mental health difficulties are not their fault and although they may be worried about you that you’re taking steps towards being well.

‘Kids want to know, in very simple terms, what you are doing to become well as they are very practically minded. Saying things like “I am taking some medicine and making sure I get plenty of sleep and seeing my doctor every week” is helpful. Especially if kids see this happening.’

– Dr Angie Willcocks

Reflective exercise

It’s important to consider how your symptoms might be interpreted by your primary school-aged child. To help you reflect on this, consider the following questions:

  • How might your child make sense of your change in behaviour?
  • What have you noticed about their reaction to this?
  • What do you think they might be feeling?
  • What might they understand from the language you use?
  • Which of your behaviours do you think might worry your child the most?

Connecting with your child

It may be hard to find the energy to nurture your children when you’re feeling unwell. But by taking steps to ensure a strong bond with your child, you can help buffer them from the impact of difficult times.1 This means that even if you’re struggling yourself, there are simple steps you can take to stay connected to your child and support their mental health and wellbeing. It’s also important to recognise the strength it takes to care for your child’s wellbeing, despite whatever else is going on around you, and acknowledge this strength within yourself.

Here are some things you can do to help build that connection:

  • Take a moment to sit quietly and have a cuddle.
  • Have them read their favourite book aloud to you.
  • Cook some biscuits or their favourite meal together (if you have the energy).
  • Start a jigsaw puzzle.
  • If you’re feeling really flat, put on their favourite movie and hang out on the couch together. Some days it’s more important to just be together in whatever way you can.

While you’re sitting together, take the time to let your children know what is happening and what you are doing to become well again. Use honest and simple language to describe the actions you are taking such as seeing a doctor, resting more than usual or taking medication.

Communicating with your child

Conversations with your child about your mental health difficulties are important. These conversations help your child understand the family situation and make sense of what they’re experiencing. When your child doesn’t understand what is happening in the family they can worry, feel alone and misunderstand the situation. They may feel personally responsible, and may be worried about you, your health and safety, and what it means for the whole family.

Helping your child understand mental illness and what it means for your family will:

  • show them that it’s OK to talk about mental illness
  • allow them to ask questions and ensure they get the correct information
  • help them to come to you (or others) when they’re worried or feeling overwhelmed; and
  • build an understanding of mental health that can strengthen your relationships.

Starting the conversation with your child

You might start a conversation about your mental illness with:

You may have been worried about…or noticed…(thinking about your symptoms or behaviours). I want you to know I have a mental illness called anxiety/depression etc. And I want you to know that it’s no one’s fault, it’s just an illness/how my mind works. No one caused this.


You might have noticed that I don’t have much energy at the moment and I’m always tired. Being tired is part of a mental illness that I have. Is there anything you’d like to ask me about it?

You could invite your child to talk about what they’ve noticed or are worried about:

Have you noticed anything that has you worried?

You can then follow with:

I’m here to talk if you have any questions or if you feel worried or scared. If you feel you can’t come to me, you can always talk to …

Things to remember

  • Talk to your child at their level, using words they’ll understand.
  • Stop and pause after each new bit of information.
  • Give your child time to think and ask questions. Keep in mind that the questions may not come straight away; your child may need some time to think.
  • If you don’t know the answer, tell your child that you’ll find out and get back to them, or even look for the answer together.
  • One discussion might not be enough. A shared understanding takes time to develop and your child’s questions and need for information will change as they grow.

Things you can do

  • Encourage your child to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want. But be sure to set up a process for them so that if you’re too unwell or don’t have the energy to answer, they still feel valued and know that you’ll make time for their questions later. Perhaps keep a notepad to write any questions down, or ask your child to text you their questions instead.
  • Although conversations may be short, their meaning is important. Often the first discussion is the most daunting. Small conversations can build on your child’s and your family’s shared understanding over time.

Help from trusted adults

It may be comforting for your child to have someone else who they can approach to answer their questions or talk to, particularly at times when you’re unwell. If there are other trusted adults in your and your child’s life – such as grandparents, other family members or good friends – it could be helpful to seek their support in talking about your mental health difficulties to your child. Tell these trusted adults about the information you have given your child and what information you would like them to share – and if there is any information that you don’t want them to share with your child. Sharing our guide Supporting children of parents living with mental illness with your trusted adult(s) will help them understand how they can support you and your child during tough times. As the saying goes, it ‘takes a village to raise a child’.

If you’re feeling unsure, your GP can be a great source of support and information and can also recommend further support services that may be useful.

It can be hard knowing how to start the conversation about your mental health challenges with your child. But by letting them know it’s important to talk about feelings and experiences, you can help normalise these conversations and build their resilience. This will not only help prepare them for future life challenges but build stronger connections between you and your child.

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