Many young people struggle with anxiety or depression, but don’t know how to ask for help. They may not realize that it’s okay to talk about what they’re going through. Or they may have trouble finding the words to describe their experience. 

Parents, caregivers and other trusted adults can help. Connecticut Children’s pediatric psychologist Bradley S. Jerson, PhD, shares advice.

Want more articles like this from pediatric experts you trust?

Sign up for our newsletter.

Look for clues about your child’s mental health.

If you notice that your child’s behavior has changed, whether they’re struggling at school or spending less time with family, resist the urge to jump into suggestion mode or reprimands. Instead, take a step back and recognize that these are clues about your child’s mental health.

You know your child best. Do any of the following seem unusual?

  • Spending a lot more time alone?
  • Sleeping a lot more or less?
  • Withdrawing from family or friends?
  • Not interested in favorite activities?
  • Changes in overall mood?
  • More irritated or angry?
  • Stuck on negative thoughts?
  • Hopeless about the future?

> Related: Resources to support your child’s mental health

Try different tactics to help your child open up.

Parent comforting teenager

Use gentle questions to make your child feel safe talking about what they’re going through. Keep your tone neutral and be thoughtful about avoiding anything that sounds like a judgment. For example, you might say, “I’ve noticed that you stay in your room more, instead of coming down to play games with us. Can we talk about that?”

Make it a habit to talk openly about mental health in your household, including sharing (as appropriate) how you’re coping with your own feelings.

Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about suicide and or other hard topics. These questions do not cause or contribute to the risk. Instead, it shows your child that it’s okay to share with you. Here’s advice for talking about suicide.

If your child may be at risk of harming themselves or others, call 211 for support and advice, or dial 911 if they are in immediate danger.

Learn how to listen.

As a parent or caregiver, this is the most important thing you can do for your child.

  • Focus on simply sitting and connecting with your child and encouraging them to express their emotions. Don’t focus on identifying or solving the problem.
  • Work on being present and reflective of your child’s experience without attempting to convince them out of it. For example, instead of offering advice, you might say, “That sounds really hard.”
  • Let your child know that it’s okay that they’re having difficult feelings, whether that’s anxiety, depression, stress, anger, fear, loneliness, or something else.

The simple act of talking can help release stress around difficult topics. It also reinforces to your child that they can come to you when they need support.

Get support for your child.

If your child is struggling, talk to their pediatrician, school counselor or insurance provider for help finding a therapist or counselor. In a crisis, call 211 (Connecticut only), 911, or call or text the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1.800.273.8255.

Learn about other mental health supports for families.

You might also like: