Talking to your young 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’s natural to worry about how you should bring up the subject of your mental illness with your children. This resource aims to help you understand how to build open lines of communication with your young child and let them know you’re there for them.

Toddlers and preschoolers use their parent’s facial expression, tone of voice and body language, along with their increasing understanding of language, to make sense of the world around them. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of how mental health difficulties affect your emotions and mood; in particular, your behaviour, facial expressions and tone of voice. Common mental illness symptoms that young children might notice are that you have less patience, energy or interest in games. They might notice that your face looks sad or worried. 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 toddler or young child may see and hear, and how these might affect how they feel. You may find it easier to talk about this with a partner, friend or your GP.

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

While toddlers and young children can become aware of how you are feeling through small changes in your behaviour, there is plenty you can do to minimise the impact on them.

Understanding what your child notices and experiences

Although a toddler or preschooler may not fully understand everything you say, they may be very sensitive and reactive to your emotions and to the tone of your voice. Toddlers and preschool aged children are very perceptive and can detect even small shifts in your behaviour or body language, despite your best efforts to ‘hide’ any change.

You might notice when you’re struggling with your moods and emotions that your child’s responses to you also change. Your child may be reacting to behaviours or situations they don’t understand and need help to manage and name their feelings.

Reflective exercise

To help you reflect on this, take a moment to think about the following:

  • What might your toddler or preschool aged child see in your face?
  • What might they hear in the tone of your voice?
  • How might they make sense of this?
  • Which of your behaviours might worry your toddler or preschooler?
  • What do you notice about their reaction?

Connecting with your child

We understand that when you’re experiencing mental health difficulties, it can be hard to find the energy to nurture your children. But a strong bond with your toddler or young child can act as a buffer during difficult times. This means that even if you’re struggling yourself, by taking simple steps to stay connected to your child, you can 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 anytime to help build that connection:

  • Take a moment to sit quietly and have a cuddle.
  • Read them a story or sing a song together. If you don’t have the energy to sing, listen to music together or just snuggle.
  • Sit outside in the sun (if possible). Just being in the sandpit with your child or watching them somersault on the grass is enough. Young children love you to watch and just be with them, even if you’re not participating much. Plus, being outdoors in the fresh air and sunlight is good for both of you.
  • Do a drawing together of something they like: for example, your family, their pet or their favourite place.

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.

A strong bond with your toddler or preschooler can act as a buffer during difficult times.

Communicating with your toddler or preschooler

It’s important to talk with your child calmly in a gentle tone. Find a quiet time to begin any discussion, when your focus can be on them.

Let your child know, using simple language, that you’re not feeling well right now. Make it clear that although they may feel worried, you’re taking steps to get better. Be specific about what some of those steps are, for example that you are seeing a doctor or taking medicine.

If you’re not feeling well and your child is distressed, try to manage your own feelings before trying to comfort them. Use a calm voice, gentle tone and facial expressions, and slowly lower your body to be with them.

Start to link words to feelings. If you’re feeling irritable, reassure your child by saying:

I am feeling grumpy/angry right now. You are not making me grumpy/angry. It is just how I am feeling, and I can see that it is making you sad.’

You might start a conversation about your mental health difficulties with something like:

I know I used my angry voice. I want you to know I am not angry with you. I can see it makes you sad/frightened when I use my angry voice. From now on I will try to use my quiet voice when I am talking to you.


Mummy/Daddy is unwell and that is why I’m tired and sleep at lot. I do not like feeling this way, but I do like spending time with you. Can we do something quietly together?

Things to remember

  • Toddlers and preschool-aged children communicate their feelings, frustration and need for attention through their behaviour.
  • Toddlers and preschoolers need to trust that you can respond to their needs in a calm and positive way.
  • Although discussions might be short, their meaning is important. Small conversations can build on your child’s and your family’s shared understanding of mental illness over time.

Things you can do

  • Encourage your toddler or young child to use words to express their feelings. For example, ‘I can see you are looking sad. Are you feeling sad?‘ or ‘I can hear you using your angry voice. Are you feeling cross/frustrated?
  • Sit and draw with your child. They might want to draw how they amre feeling as a way of expressing themselves.
  • Spend time with your child each day. Plan ahead if you know you will not have a lot of energy. Tell stories, read a book, listen to children’s music or play in the sand.

Let your child know that they have not caused you to be unwell, it’s not their fault and that you’re taking steps to get well.

Help from trusted adults

It may be comforting for your child to have someone else whom 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.

If you’re finding it difficult to spend time with your toddler or preschool-aged child, ask a good friend or family member if they can support you in taking a break. Perhaps they could help by spending an hour in the park with your child while you have a lie down or gather your thoughts. Toddlers and preschoolers can be trying at times as they learn to communicate their thoughts and feelings. If you’re struggling, your GP can also be a great source of support and information, especially if you’re not already seeing (or waiting to see) a counsellor or psychologist.

It can be hard to know how to start the conversation about your mental health challenges with your child. But by talking about feelings and experiences from an early age, you can help normalise these conversations and build your child’s resilience for facing future life challenges.

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