The Child Mind Institute is a proud participant in 2018 World Mental Health Day. Children’s mental health is just as important as their physical health, but while you might be able to spot a fever from a mile away, it’s not always so easy to know when a child is having a hard time at school or struggling to make friends.

Checking in with kids around how they’re feeling about school, friends, or what they’re interested in (or totally bored with) is the best way to make sure you’re getting the full scoop when it comes to your child’s mental health. But we know it’s not always easy to get kids to share their feelings. So this World Mental Health Day, we asked our clinicians for a few suggestions to help parents get the conversation started.

Top 5 Questions for Parents to Ask

Parents can start by asking their kids some simple questions. A few examples could be:

  1. What was the most interesting (or exciting)  part of your day?
  2. What was the most frustrating (or boring) part of your day?
  3. Is there anything you’re especially looking forward to this week?
  4. Is there anything you’re feeling worried about this week?
  5. Who are you playing with at recess? OR: Who do you like to each lunch with?

General questions are apt to be met with general answers (We’ve all heard the dreaded “Fine.”) Being specific is a good way to get the conversation started, and keep it going. For example:

  • “How was Geometry today? I know you were feeling a little worried about the quiz”
  • “I noticed you haven’t talked about Julia in a while, is everything OK?”

Remember, you’re not interviewing your child. Some children may have a lot to say one day, and nothing the next, and that’s OK. The goal is to keep the lines of communication open by creating openings for your child to share her feelings, worries, and triumphs.

Talking with to your child is important, but sometimes actions, or inactions, speak louder than words. Some kids may swear they’re fine when they’re actually struggling, others may not have the words to explain what’s troubling them, or not realize it’s a problem at all. Parents also should keep an eye out for signs that kids might be having a hard time.

Red Flags to Look For

Red flags that can indicate academic or social struggles include:

  1. A child who often swears she’s too sick to go to school,  begs to be allowed to stay home, or flat-out refuses to go.
  2. Physical symptoms like headaches, or upset stomachs that seem to come out of nowhere.
  3. Big, emotional conflict around sitting down to do homework or finishing assignments, or avoiding doing homework in a certain subject
  4. Outsized anxiety or stress in response to commonplace challenges like studying for a test, packing a backpack, or cleaning his room.
  5. Severe or persistent irritability or tantrums when asked to put down or pause screens, games, or social media.
  6. Significant changes in sleep or appetite.
  7. Decline in grades.
  8. Your child stops mentioning friends he used to talk about, or you notice he no longer asks to have friends over or has stopped being invited to playdates or parties.
  9. You notice your child seems withdrawn, or has lost interest in activities he used to enjoy.