Talking to your teenager 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’s natural to worry about how to raise the subject of your mental health difficulties with your teenager. Alongside this, as children grow into young people, their desire to discuss sensitive topics may decrease, making these conversations even more difficult. This resource aims to help you understand how to build open lines of communication with your teenager and let them know you’re there for them.

Young people access and receive information from a number of different places such as friends, television, the internet and social media. This information may not always match your experience of mental illness, so it’s important to listen to your child and then explain how your experience is different.

It’s also important to become familiar with how your illness affects your emotions and mood; in particular, your behaviour, facial expressions and tone of voice, as these are the changes that your young person will notice the most.

Are you quick to anger, or spending 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 mental illness symptoms you experience, the behaviours that your teenager may see and hear, and how these things 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.

It’s important to remember that your experience with mental health difficulties does not make you a bad parent.

As a parent, it can be challenging to think about how your teen might view what is happening. It may be useful to talk with your health professional or another support person about how mental illness can affect parenting. But it’s also important to remember that experiencing mental health challenges doesn’t make you a bad parent.

Conversations with your teenager about mental illness can help them make sense of their experience. However, it’s important to remember they are not there to help you make sense of your illness. If you’re trying to understand your illness, or need to talk about your experiences, discuss this with a trusted friend or family member, your GP or a mental health professional.

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

Understanding what your teenager notices and experiences

Teenagers are in the process of developing an adult view of the world. They’re trying to make sense of their relationships with you and with others. Your behaviour may challenge how they see you and how they see themselves.

It’s common for teenagers to worry about their parent, their parent’s illness and how it impacts the relationship with their parent. Some teenagers might also worry about whether they will develop a mental illness themselves. They may want to know how you were diagnosed, whether you’ll get better and how they can explain your illness to others without feeling disrespectful or disloyal to you.

Reflective exercise

Some questions to consider before talking to your teen are:

  • How might your behaviours be affecting your teenager?
  • How might your symptoms and behaviours impact on your relationship with them?
  • Which behaviours appear to be the most challenging for them?
  • How might this impact on their involvement with community activities, friends or peers?
  • What concerns might they have about their own mental health?
  • How might your symptoms and behaviours be affecting their decisions?
  • What information could help your teenager to understand what they’ve observed about your behaviour?

Communicating with your teenager

Having conversations with your teenager about your mental health is important. These conversations can help you understand their experiences, and in turn help your teenager understand your experiences with mental illness and the family situation. Talking it through may help them make sense of what is happening. If your teen is confused about the situation they may worry, feel alone and misunderstand what is going on. They may feel personally responsible, and worry about you and your health and safety.

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

  • will show them it’s okay to talk about mental illness
  • allows them to ask questions and get the correct information
  • can encourage them to come to you (or others) when they’re worried or overwhelmed; and
  • builds a shared understanding of mental health and illness that can strengthen your relationship.

Here are some suggestions for starting a conversation about your mental illness with your teenager:

You may have been worried about/noticed…(thinking about your symptoms or behaviours). I want you to know I have a mental illness. And I want you to know that it’s not your fault. You haven’t caused this.

You might have noticed that I don’t have much energy at the moment and I’m always tired. Being tired is a symptom of my mental illness. I want you to know that I don’t like feeling like this, and I’m working towards feeling better. I know it must be hard for you to understand though, when you see me tired and sleeping a lot.

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

What have you noticed that worries you?

You can then follow with:

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

Help from trusted adults

It can be helpful for young people 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 illness to your teenager. Tell these trusted adults about the information you have given your teen and what information you would like them to share – and if there is any information that you don’t want them to share. 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’.

Things to remember

  • Make sure the conversation happens when you’re both feeling ready and calm.
  • Teenagers often find it more comfortable to ‘talk while doing’. For example, you might find it easier to start a conversation while you’re in the car, going for a walk or kicking a ball around.
  • One discussion is never enough. A shared understanding takes time to develop, and your teen’s questions and need for information will change over time.

Things you can do

  • Give your teenager information about your symptoms, recovery and the range of help and strategies you find useful.
  • Encourage them to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want but understand that they may need some time to process the information first – questions may come later.
  • Set up a process so that if you’re too unwell or don’t have the energy to answer their questions, they know that you’ll make time for them later. Young people love to text, so this can be a good option too.
  • Set up a support network for your teenager so that if you can’t answer their questions, they can seek answers from someone you both trust, such as a family member or friend.


Although conversations may be short, their meaning is important. Often the first discussion is the most daunting. Small talks can build on your teen’s and your family’s shared understanding over time, and build resilience to help them navigate challenges in the future.

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