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Talking to a child about their mental health

Children may struggle to find the words to describe their experience. It is up to practitioners and other adults to take the lead and notice what is happening for them.

Listen deeply to a child when talking with them about their mental health. Give them the space to say whatever they want. Resist the temptation to immediately cheer them up as the child may interpret this as not being ready to hear about, or dismissing, their experiences and feelings.

The information below provides some examples of ways to start a conversation with a child about their mental health.

Before having these conversations, think about:

  • how the ideas should be adapted to the age, developmental stage, capacity or situation of the child
  • the purpose of the conversation with the child and what you are hoping to achieve - for example, are you trying to find the best way of supporting the child?
  • who the best person is to have this conversation with the child — Child Safety, their parent, a carer, or their counsellor or mental health worker
  • how you will provide responsive support if the child says something that raises concerns about their immediate safety
  • how to make sure the child is supported after speaking with them, especially if it is distressing
Practice considerations Conversation ideas

Understand the persistence and intensity of the child’s feelings.

Use tools such as scaling questions or The Bears App to explore the intensity of the child’s feelings.

Use a scaling question to explore the intensity of a child’s feelings

Have a look at these bear cards. Can you pick a bear that is most like you? Is there a bear that you would like to be?

Have a look at the scale from 1 to 10. If 1 is the worst you have ever felt, and 10 is the best you have ever felt, how are you feeling today?

How did you feel yesterday? Do you think this might change tomorrow or next week?

Tell me what words we can use to describe when you are at a 10.

What words can we use to describe when you’re at a 3?

Be curious if the child says something to make you worried about their safety.

I noticed you looked (uncomfortable, sad or worried) … when you mentioned John. Can you tell me more about this?

Are there things that you are worried or sad about? Is there something I can do or help you to figure out?

Be responsive if the child talks about hurting themselves or dying.

If you are worried, call the local Child and Youth Mental Health Service (CYMHS) for advice.

1300 MH CALL (1300 642255) is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and will link to your nearest Queensland Public Mental Health service

If you have immediate safety concerns for a child, call 000 for an ambulance.


Thanks for telling me about [use the child’s words]. That must have been really hard to say. It’s important you've spoken up. I want you to know that me, Aunty Janice and Troy really care about you and want you to be OK. Let’s talk about a plan to keep you safe tonight. We can also talk about what we can do to help you. What do you think you need from me to keep safe? From others?

Refer to procedure 5 Respond to suicidal behaviour.

Support the child to get help. Sometimes children just like you need help to talk about their sadness and worry, and help to find a way to feel better. I work with lots of children and young people who see counsellors to talk about their sad and worried feelings. It seems to help and I happen to know a really nice one. I think she can help you too. Counsellors are good listeners and can help you with things that are troubling you. How would you feel about me introducing you to her?  


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