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Having a serious conversation about mental health with a young person can be challenging, to say the least. How do you start the conversation? What should you bring up? How much is too much information? Should it even be discussed?

The Mental Health First Aid curricula says national studies estimate that 22.2 percent of youth in the United States will have a mental health challenge that significantly impacts their life. This makes it likely that an adult will interact with an adolescent who is experiencing a mental health challenge. Adults who interact with young people need access to information and resources about how to have conversations with kids and answer the tough questions.

Youth Mental Health First Aid can help. Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help  adolescents (age 12-18) who are experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge or are in crisis. YMHFA is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people. To learn more, download the Mental Health First Aid for Youth information sheet.

According to the Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum, conversations can be initiated by anyone close enough to the young person that he or she can detect noticeable differences in behavior, thoughts and feelings. This person could be a parent, coach, teacher, family member, youth group member, or other trusted and responsible adult.

Before talking to a young person, consider looping in a parent, caregiver, or guardian. You can help them find affordable mental health care options or help a youth navigate their legal right to access care. Be aware that rights vary from state to state. For example, in some states, a 14-year-old can access substance use counseling without parental permission.

Still, how do you effectively talk to youth about this challenging topic? This can depend on the age and maturity level of the young person, but there are things you can keep in mind to help make the conversation hopeful and helpful. Use these tips from the Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum, coupled with the 5-step MHFA Action Plan, to get started.


  • Be authentic: Kids have a sixth sense when an adult is pretending, so be yourself. If you’re uncomfortable talking about the topic, admit it. You could say, “This is hard for me to bring up, and it may be hard for you to talk about, too.”
  • Be careful about using slang: Like the tip mentioned above, youth know when an adult is trying too hard to be someone they’re not. Using slang words out of context can be a red flag to a kid.
  • Allow for silence: Embracing quiet moments allows kids to find their own words to describe their feelings. Interrupting a silent spell may break their focus. If enough time passes, try offering words that could help them express their emotions, like “To me, you don’t look happy. Are you sad, frustrated, or angry?”
  • Watch your body language: Body language sends big signals to young people. Talk to kids on the same level as them, like sitting next to them or walking side by side. Keep your arms unfolded and talk in a low, calm voice. Avoid folding your arms and standing above them, which can intimidate them and cause them to lock up.
  • Provide positive feedback: Genuinely complimenting the young person’s strengths and abilities can encourage them to talk. Give a specific example of something they did and what it reflects, for example, “I saw that you made it to school on time despite having a rough morning. That shows a lot of determination.”


  • Compare the young person’s life experiences to yours at that age: It’s easy to want to relate to youth by sharing your experiences at that age. However, a young person can see it as devaluing or outdoing their experience. Keep the conversation focused on them.
  • Trivialize the young person’s feelings: Avoid downplaying kids’ feelings by asking what they have to be anxious or depressed about. Though the situation may seem minor to an adult, to a youth, it may seem like it’s their whole world.
  • Ask a young person to justify or explain behavior: Kids often act impulsively without much forethought. It’s not intentional — they simply haven’t mentally developed the ability yet. Asking “Why did you throw a tantrum?” or “Why did you leave without permission?” only puts children on the defensive.

Recognizing mental health challenges is the first step toward helping a young person. According to MHFA, studies show that with proper care and treatment, children and youth with mental health and substance use challenges get better, and many recover completely.

Interested in learning more about YMHFA? Find a course near you today and #BeTheDifference for young people in your community.



Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA Manual for Adults Assisting Children and Youth. National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

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