A mother and her two daughters smiling and laughing together

How to have a conversation with young people about mental health

The aim of this guide is to help consider how you might initiate a conversation with a young person about mental health and wellbeing, including when a young person is struggling with their mental health. We need good mental health and wellbeing to be able to make the most of life’s opportunities and challenges, and we can nurture good mental health in young people whether they have a diagnosed mental health condition or not.

How to check in on a young person's mental health

A female family having a serious discussion while sitting near a wall

You cannot make yourself the adult the young person will turn to for support with their mental health. However you can provide an environment and a presence that helps build trust. First and foremost young people choose who they want to turn to. 

You can ask how a young person is feeling, but they may not feel comfortable or want to open up to you today – don’t take that personally!

Young people have told us that even though they may not take you up on a first offer to talk, you should make the offer again. It might take more than one - or even two or three – invitations before they open up. Just reminding them you are there if they need you is a great start to building trust.

Beginning a conversation

If you don’t know where to start - start as you would any other conversation! You know your young person and your context. It won't always be a “big” conversation.

You can start by simply asking a heartfelt ‘how are you?’, or saying ‘I’ve noticed you’re a bit down/upset/angry today, do you want to talk?’. It doesn't even need to be when you're worried about them, regularly checking in means that when something is up, they know there's a space to talk. 

Do be prepared to find a quieter space if someone does choose to open up more deeply.

We worked with adults supporting young people's mental health to consider when might be a good time to check in with a young person's mental health.  Our poster illustration of ‘When to check in with your young person about their mental health’ is a helpful visual reminder of when you might want to start such a conversation.

When is a good time to check in with a young person

Boundaries

  • A key thing young people told us they valued in adults is when adults clearly set the boundaries of the relationship. This way young people can adjust their expectations, which helps them feel secure in understanding when and what they can share with a trusted adult, and what will happen with that information .

A father comforts his son at the table

Noticing signs of distress

The following signs of distress are worth being curious about:

  • changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • withdrawing from the group
  • displaying aggression towards others
  • self-harming behaviour
  • significant changes in mood, behavior or personality
  • decline in attendance

 

You may feel unsure if a change in behaviour is part of development, or a sign that something more is going on. Yet if this change in behaviour is over a sustained period of time, or is something that’s stopping a young person from being able to engage in the activity, then it is worth checking in to see how they are.

If you notice a young person’s not themselves, don’t assume they’re talking to someone about how they feel. Showing you care and offering a listening ear empowers the young person to choose to speak to you, if they want.

How to respond when a young person opens up to you

When a young person starts talking about how they’re feeling, remember it might be the first time they have spoken to someone about their mental health and they may struggle to put their thoughts into words.

Listen carefully when someone opens up to you about how they are feeling. Try to let them share without interrupting. Repeating back what they’ve told you can help both of you be clear about what they’ve said and how they are feeling.

If they are finding it overwhelming, you can suggest they write it down. That way, they can take their time to think about what they are trying to say, without worrying about how it might come across in conversation, or worrying about getting emotional in front of you.

Often, when someone has opened up about how they are feeling, they might immediately feel worried that you won’t take their feelings seriously, or that they have said the wrong thing. Reassure them that they have done the right thing.

No matter what a young person is struggling with, their experiences are valid and it can be helpful to remind your young person of this. You could say ‘it’s really understandable that you’re feeling…’ to let them know that their feelings are okay.

When a young person opens up about how they are feeling, having that time and space to share their concerns with you may be enough. However, if they do need further help, there are a number of services that you can signpost them to. 
Accessing help can be daunting, so it is important to ask your young person what help they need as they go through the process. It is important to consider how severe their distress is – are they doing okay? Are they struggling? Or are they unwell or in crisis? The NSPCC have more about this continuum, under ‘Understanding’ here.
If you are worried that a young person is at immediate risk of harm, or is not safe, call 999 or take them to A&E.The NHS is very clear that a mental health emergency should be taken as seriously as a physical one – and that you will not be wasting anyone’s time.

You can also contact your local NHS urgent mental health helpline (England only) or 111 for 24-hour advice and support.

 

It’s a great privilege for a young person to reach out to us for help, but it can feel daunting and worrying. Young people aren’t asking trusted adults to have all the answers, fix all their problems or be a mental health expert. From our research, one of the most valuable things you can do is simply to offer to be by their side for the journey

You must take action

  • If you have a serious concern about a young person’s safety. You can make a safeguarding referral directly to the young person’s local Social Care team. The best way to find out the correct contact details is to call the Local Authority’s switchboard or search online for the name of the Local Authority and ‘safeguarding’. If you are concerned about the immediate safety of a young person, you should call the emergency services on 999.

What you can do to support a young person's mental health

  • Be there with a listening ear

    This might be enough for a young person. They might need nothing more than a regular, or occasional, check-in.

  • Keep curious

    Keep an eye out for changes in their behavior and more subtle pleas for help. 

  • Know where to get help

    Know where to go for further help for a young person. Bookmark our ‘I need help’ page for an up-to-date list of national services.

  • Create time to talk

    Life get’s busy and young people tell us they don’t want to burden adults with how they’re feeling. Take time to slow down and be available for young people to turn to.

  • Share some tips

    Share with your young people the top tips you use for your own mental wellbeing particularly around times of stress, such as Christmas, returning to school in September, and during summer exams.

  • Make the most of local activities

    Use these to give young people access to activities that will help their mental health. Taking a local walk, trying a new skill or helping someone in the community can all improve wellbeing.

  • Keep your boundaries

    It’s important to keep to your own boundaries, to avoid young people feeling let down.

Young people share their tips on having conversations

  • Pick an appropriate time to bring up concerns. Don’t do it when in a rush.
  • Allow us space to talk to you, listen to what we are saying. Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions
  • Signposting can be isolating. We might need support to call the services a professional has referred us to.
  • Sometimes I just need someone to listen. I don't necessarily need answers or solutions, I just want someone to take the time to listen to me.
  • Keep checking in on us! Remind us we aren't forgotten, even if we don't want to engage.
  • Confidentiality (in line with safeguarding) and the option for anonymity are fundamental to good support.
  • Don’t try to ‘fix’ the young person or their problems unless this is what they want. Trusted adults should ask them what actions to take – don’t assume.
  • Keep viewing us a whole person and have conversations about normal things as well

Other resources you might find useful

See our guides and information that you can use or pass onto young people and their parents.