How to Talk To Your Son If He’s Struggling With His Emotional and Mental Health


Are you struggling to get your son to open up to you? You’re not alone.

It’s deeply worrying when your child isn’t communicating with you. The first thing to say is that, unfortunately, this is very normal. The cultural influences boys grow up around tell them to ‘man up’ when they’re struggling. The ‘boys don’t cry’ mentality has unsurprisingly made them hesitant to talk about their emotions. They often feel under pressure to be self-reliant, so reaching out for support can make them uncomfortable. This ‘macho-mode’ is all well and good until things start to go wrong and you can’t get your son to share his feelings.

The truth is, you can’t force your son to open up to you, and he doesn’t owe you access to his deepest feelings. You need to prove to him that you’re worthy of his confidence by investing time into building a deeper relationship with him. In The Horizon Plan, we call this the ‘Bonding Stage’. It’s about working on your bond with your child to increase trust in the relationship. The hope is that this encourages them to actively want to share with you. It won’t happen overnight, but gradually he will trust you enough to share more.

In the meantime, you can work on proactively listening to him the way he wants you to. 

Guide to Listening to Your Son How He Wants You To

When I sat down to write this article, I did what all bloggers do first, and I fished around Google for what’s already been said. It ended up being a frustrating afternoon. Every article I read on ‘How to Get Your Son to Talk to You’ felt very detached from how young guys today actually behave. Advice like ‘join in his video gaming with his friends’ made it very hard to imagine these were tried-and-tested suggestions. I can’t see any son welcoming an intrusion like this. So, to give you genuinely applicable advice, I sat down and spoke to five young men. Through our conversations, they revealed how they’d like to be listened to. So here are 8 top tips for you, informed by real boys’ feelings and opinions. 


#1 Ask him indirect questions.

As soon as you say something direct to your son like “Are you feeling alright?”, you’re signaling to him that it’s a conversation about emotions. This might make him clam up or give monosyllabic answers like the infuriatingly vague “yeah”. When I interviewed my friends, I deliberately worded the questions in such a way that I wasn’t directly asking them about their emotions. But each of them still told me how they felt. Because it wasn’t a black-and-white ‘deep chat’, they had no trouble letting their thoughts flow. Of course, I’m not telling you to interview your son, but try asking questions less direct than ‘How are you?’. For example, I asked “Do you think you open up more to your male or your female friends?”. This might seem an irrelevant question, but it still got answers like “it’s more about whether they’re a listener or a joker” which revealed that young guys seek out active listeners.


#2 Consider what else is going on in his head.

If your son’s struggling with their emotions or their mental health, it’s important to remember all the other things that he’s probably preoccupied with. Part of being a good listener is listening with empathy. It’s hard to be empathetic when we don’t understand what’s going on behind the scenes in someone’s mind. So, to give you some insight, I asked my friends what kinds of things they overheard guys worrying about the most. The main answers were:

  • “girls”
  • “success”
  • “jobs”
  • “finances”
  • “body image”
  • “gym, muscles, hair”.
  • “social status”
  • “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) 

FOMO was spoken about in terms of boys being anxious about not making the most of their lives and missing out on opportunities. It was especially mentioned in parallel with boys’ drinking culture, which one of them described as “definitely toxic”. Now, I’m not saying you can do much about any of these, and judging by the repetitiveness of my friends’ answers, these are all pretty normal. But hopefully, by learning a bit about what else might be weighing your son down, you’ll feel better informed to listen and understand when he does open up.


#3 Location, Location, Location

If you come guns blazing into your son’s room while he’s busy and expect him to want to chat, you’re going to be deeply disappointed. So another thing to consider is where you are when you try to chat with your son. I asked the boys if there were any places or conditions in which they felt particularly comfortable discussing how they were feeling. Here are some of their responses to give you ideas of locations and situations to target:

  • “Definitely, it would need to be one-on-one”.
  • “on a walk”
  • “in the car”
  • “on the phone”
  • “park bench”

The pattern in a lot of their comments was a dislike of sitting across a table face-to-face pouring their hearts out. The general consensus was that no-eye contact situations (e.g., in the car, on a walk, or doing another activity) are much better as they “take the awkwardness out of it”. So perhaps you could start by being more chatty while you’re driving your son somewhere; sitting facing forward in the car seems to be an ideal condition for boys to open up in.

#4 Skip the lecture.

If your son does start sharing with you (success!), you need to be smart about how you respond. This is definitely not the time to start bringing up all the things you think he’s doing wrong. Turning his confiding in you into a lecture is a sure-fire way to ensure he’ll never do it again. One of my friends confirmed this, saying that when he told his parents things, “they’d lecture me about stuff, and it’d be all about ‘you haven’t done this yet’.”If you respond to their efforts to open up with nagging, you can hardly expect them to feel positive about doing it.

Also, the boys suggested that it would put them off if their parents seemed obviously disappointed in them – “when you tell your parents things, you feel shameful and guilty sometimes” because they get “angry, upset, embarrassed”. So, as much as possible, trying to hide your judgements about what they share with you is key. This doesn’t mean that you should never voice any concerns, it’s just important to pick your battles and notice when listening calmly would be a better way to react. 

#5 He wants your advice, not a blueprint plan.

When you offer him advice, make sure you don’t expect him to follow it to a T. My friends all seemed pretty hung up on the idea that they wanted to solve their problems themselves. One wanted his parents to “charge me with responsibility” and another said, “I need to realise the solution myself”. This doesn’t mean that when he clearly needs your support because he’s struggling that you should abandon him. It just means that you should offer him advice without mapping out a whole life plan for him to follow. Indeed, one of them said “I’d want their advice, but I wouldn’t want them to force me to implement it”.

You can say your piece and still allow him some space to realise on his own what needs to happen. For example, one of the guys I spoke to said that when his parents shared stories from their past as an example of how to solve problems, it always put him on the offensive and made him want to say, “that’s not the same; you don’t understand”. 

#6 Consider why he’s reluctant to talk.

I also asked these guys what made them reluctant to open up. For one, his reluctance came from feeling like his parents “wouldn’t really get it”. This is where trying to really listen to what your son’s saying rather than making assumptions becomes key. Another explained that “you just want someone to talk to who’ll listen” in a “non-judgmental” way.

They were all wary of being met with ashamed, embarrassed, or angry reactions from their parents. Sometimes when your son opens up to you, he might let slip details of behaviours you’re not especially thrilled about, like excessive drinking. It’s important that you don’t react to this in such a way that he feels like you’re judging him. By the sounds of it, being judged will shut them up even more. Another said that guys don’t open up because “they’re stubborn, they have pride, and talking may be perceived as weakness”. This kind of thinking is the product of gender stereotypes that aren’t going to vanish overnight. But by working on responding positively to their opening up, you can start to change their belief that sharing is a bad thing.

#7 Don’t panic, he has other people.

Obviously, if your son’s struggling, you’re hoping that he’ll share with you so that you can help make things better. But as we’ve discovered above, they don’t always find it easy. So, another thing to say is don’t panic if he’s not sharing with you, because he does have other people in his life. One guy said that he’d be reluctant to talk to his parents because “they don’t understand the stuff we go through now” but he’d “always go to his brother”. Siblings are often a really strong source of support when we’re struggling. Another said that the “majority of my opening up is probably to other guy friends”. Just because his friends might seem young and inexperienced to you, that doesn’t mean they’re not an immensely valuable source of support for him. Of course, in an ideal world, you’d be his first port of call, but it’s reassuring to know that just because he’s not talking to you, it doesn’t mean that he’s not talking to anyone.


#8 Be patient and give him space.

Lastly, try to be patient and give him time to share with you. He isn’t suddenly going to offload his deepest, darkest secrets onto you. You need to let his trust in you build slowly as you invest in listening to him attentively. One guy said that when he’s sharing how he feels, he likes to have “time to formulate my thoughts” and doesn’t want “any perceived pressure to respond quickly”. By being patient, you can give him this space and time in which to collect his thoughts. Another said that he’d like his parents to “first calm me down” by saying things like “you can do this” and “take all the time you need”. He described this as them “diffusing the situation”. Your best hope of diffusing his struggles is by remaining calm yourself, giving him time and space, and not pressuring him to talk. 



So, if you’re finding it hard to encourage your son to open up to you, you’re absolutely not the only one. Maybe he just doesn’t want to be as communicative as you’d like him to be. But if he’s struggling and you need to facilitate better conversations about how he’s feeling, these tips are a good starting point. From interviewing my friends, the main takeaway is that boys want you to listen non-judgmentally and leave them space to figure some things out alone.

One of them summarised it nicely, saying, “I just want them to listen and to just be there”. By being patient, learning to listen more actively, and investing time in deepening your relationship with him, your son will begin to see opening up to you as less of a no-go.



For more guidance and practical advice on how to strengthen and deepen your relationship with your son (or daughter) when they’re struggling with mental health, check out our free online course.

The Youth Mental Health Foundation CIC is a non-profit with a free online course for parents supporting a young person struggling with mental health. Find out more by CLICKING HERE


Written and illustrated by Asha Sullivan

About us:

The Youth Mental Health Foundation C.I.C. is a Devon-based not-for-profit organisation that delivers innovative and scalable projects to support young people’s mental health. 

Many families are trying to support a child or teen suffering with mental health without any guidance or support. Young people who receive a referral from their GP, have a 6-18 month wait for an initial assessment by the Children & Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHs). Limited resources mean CAMHs are then only able to support the most serious cases, often meaning young people who have made a suicide attempt. Thus young people are often denied support until their condition becomes critical and potentially life-long damage is done.

Our Solution
We recognise: 1) the earlier a young person suffering with mental health receives support the better 2) the extremely limited support available to young people in crisis from statutory and non-statutory services 3) the role parents/carers can play supporting a young person's mental health with appropriate coaching and support.  

Our Mission

  • To provide support to parents and carers of young people struggling with their mental health, so that they can have an effective role in their child’s recovery.
  • To train a global network of practitioners (parents/carers, therapists, youth workers, teachers) in the use of our clinical process in order to support other families in need
  • To directly build mental health resilience in young people. 

Our Vision

  • A world where young people have mental health resilience, and every parent, carer, youth worker and healthcare professional has the knowledge, skills and confidence to support a child in crisis.



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