15 Shows Your Kids Need To Watch To Understand Mental Health

These fifteen shows promote positive mental health in an age-appropriate way.
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Mental health is essential to well-being and learning how to maintain it should start at a young age. According to the CDC, mental health can affect every aspect of our lives. It impacts our reactions to everyday events, our thought processes, our relationships with others, and the way we make decisions. Even if you do not suffer from mental illness, it’s still important to maintain good mental health throughout life. 

However, mental health is still not taken as seriously as physical health. Mental illness is generally misunderstood and misrepresented. In many cases, the only access or understanding people have of mental illnesses is through the media. Unfortunately, many films and television shows use mental illness as shock value or motivation for a villainous character, providing a false image of mentally ill people as dangerous or spreading misinformation about what mental illnesses actually look like. 

The best way to combat stigma and to raise awareness is through conversation. It’s important for kids to become aware of their mental health at a young age, and for characters and stories to provide an allegory and a language to express their emotions and mental struggles they may be going through. 

Common mental health diagnoses for kids 

According to HealthDirect, there are almost 300 identifiable and diagnosable mental disorders. The main categories of mental disorders include personality disorders, trauma-based disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and psychotic disorders. These illnesses can affect people of any age, including children. Anxiety, depression, and ADHD are quite common among children ages 2-17, as the CDC states. Additionally, 1 in 6 children will be diagnosed with a mental, developmental, or behavioral disorder between the ages of 2 and 8. 

It is always advisable to speak to a doctor or medical professional with any concerns regarding your child’s well-being. Physical symptoms such as an upset stomach, lack of sleep, or weight loss can all be indicative that your child is struggling. Irritability, persistent feelings of sadness, avoiding school or responsibilities, trouble making friends or connecting with others, and difficulty concentrating could also be warning signs. 

statistics children's mental health
Photo by CDC

Talking to your child, seeking professional advice, and providing a space for your child to speak about their feelings and experiences are all important steps to improve your child’s well-being. 

15 kid shows that talk about mental health

While there is plenty of negative representation in the media, there are also so many kids shows that promote positive thinking, provide role-models to kids struggling with their mental health, and provide opportunities to learn and converse about larger internal issues. 

The following list provides fifteen shows, including shows fit for younger children as well as more mature programs for older audiences. 

1. Steven Universe

Many years ago, a race of aliens who manifest their physical forms out of gemstones come to Earth, intending to take over in order to use Earth’s natural resources to manufacture more gem soldiers. However, a group of rebel gems known as the Crystal Gems fought to protect the Earth and the people who live there. Our story begins after the revolution against the diamonds and the subsequent birth of Steven Universe.

This show follows the adventures of Steven, the first-ever half-human half-gem, who is being raised by three Crystal Gems named Pearl, Amethyst, and Garnet. Not only is Steven different, but he is also the son of the former, deceased leader of the Crystal Gem rebellion, Rose Quartz. Throughout the show, Steven must learn to use his gem powers and take part in the continued fight defending Earth against the Diamonds, while also dealing with the realities of growing up. 

Steven Universe was revolutionary for its representation of the LGBT+ community, its lessons about relationships through ‘fusion’, and its approach to addressing mental health and the challenges each character faces. We see characters who have been traumatized by war (like Lapis Lazuli), watch the development of healthy and unhealthy relationships, and learn about the effects that a traumatic childhood has on the protagonist. 

The use of music makes harder lessons accessible to younger viewers. Below is a clip from ‘Here Comes a Thought’, an episode that features anxiety and teaches viewers to let go of worries and to know they are not alone.

Overall, I highly recommend this show for viewers of all ages. 

2. Steven Universe Future

In the follow-up series to Steven Universe, this show takes place after the threat of the Diamonds has passed. Now that Steven is older, he must learn to deal with the changes around him and begin to make decisions for himself for the very first time. 

This series, in many ways, surpasses the original because it does something that many shows do not bother to do; it addresses Steven’s trauma and gives him the opportunity to heal. 

Throughout the original series, Steven becomes a confidant for his family and the many gems he helps. Now, he is forced to confront his own problems, and the process is overwhelming. As the series continues, Steven feels intense anger and fear over feelings of perceived abandonment. He is frustrated that his family sees him as the same child he was before, despite growing older and surviving so much. His trauma comes out through nightmares and moments of intense anger, and yet we still see him desperate to hold things together. Eventually, this leads to a breakdown.

The final message of the show, that healing is a process that takes time and support, is invaluable.

Also, the show gets bonus points for the inclusion of therapy, which is something still unfairly stigmatized in real life.  

3. Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure (Tangled the Series)

This animated series follows up the Disney movie Tangled. Rapunzel, a princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess, is kept away from the world in a tower and visited only by her mother, Gothel. She has incredibly long, blonde hair which heals wounds and grants eternal youth. In the movie, Rapunzel teams up with a conman, Flynn Ryder, and leaves her tower for the first time ever to see the lanterns that appear in the night sky every year on her birthday. 

Eventually, it is revealed that Gothel is not Rapunzel’s real mother. Her true parents are the king and queen of the kingdom Corona. As a baby, Rapunzel was kidnapped by Gothel and hidden away for the sake of Rapunzel’s magic hair. In the film, Rapunzel must escape Gothel’s emotionally abusive grip and escape the tower for good, taking her rightful place in the kingdom. 

The series continues Rapunzel’s adventure as she prepares to take on her royal responsibilities, while still dealing with the ramifications of her past and her relationship with Gothel. This show teaches lessons like persevering through hardships and relying on your friends in order to heal. It also shows the mixed feelings Rapunzel has towards her tower and Gothel, who appears throughout the series in nightmares. 

One noteworthy scene shows the destruction of the tower Rapunzel was kept prisoner in. She cries, showing her conflict of losing what was both her prison and her home. 

Abuse isn’t always physical, and it can look a lot like love. Rapunzel’s story does a great job of introducing this less obvious toxicity in an easily digestible way. The series has the same lovable characters as Tangled and a beautiful storybook style that’s perfect for a younger audience.

4. Big Hero 6 The Series 

This is another series based on a Disney movie of the same name. In this story, a robot named Baymax who is built to care for people teams up with a boy called Hiro, the younger brother of Baymax’s programmer. After his brother’s death, Hiro and Baymax work together to track down the people responsible for the fire that killed him. The series continues after the movie’s end, following Hiro and his friends as they continue to protect their city as heroes and Hiro’s experiences starting at a new tech school. 

Hiro is a fourteen-year-old boy dealing with the grief of losing his brother, and this story shows the effects of that grief and honors the experience as a legitimate healing process that takes time and care. It’s aimed at younger kids and teaches valuable lessons about the family and friendships that carry us through our darkest moments. Tadashi, Hiro’s brother, is remembered fondly by Hiro and his family, and there is a sense that those who love us are never really gone.

5. Andi Mack

Andi Mack begins with an ordinary kid celebrating her thirteenth birthday. The party gets interrupted when her older sister returns home with a huge secret – Andi isn’t her sister at all but is in fact her biological daughter, and she has been being raised by her grandparents all along. From there, the show follows Andi dealing with this revelation, while also following her friends’ stories and Andi’s daily life. 

There are so many things this show does right. It has diverse casting, LGBTQ+ characters, military families, and characters with mental illness. Jonah is one of Andi’s friends and experiences panic attacks, which are shown on-screen and addressed by those around him. Having a character diagnosed with a mental health disorder without being stigmatized is such a big step forward in introducing young audiences to mental health issues.

Otherwise, the show has the style and charm you would expect from Disney. It's easy to watch, and the story is enjoyable. 

Please be advised that on-screen anxiety attacks may be triggering to some viewers while watching this show. 

6. Adventure Time

This cartoon takes place in the magical Land of Ooo, where Finn the Human and Jake the Dog fight against evil in all of its forms. 

There is one specific episode, called "I Remember You" (Season Four Episode 25), that deserves special mention. This episode is about the villainous Ice King and another character named Marceline writing a song together. The sad twist is that the two are actually old friends, but because the Ice King wears a magical crown for protection, he loses his memory and no longer recognizes Marceline or the events of his past. Marceline tries to get him to remember her, growing more and more desperate, until finally accepting that the memories are gone. In the end, she turns a letter written to her by her old friend into a song, which the two perform together. 

The Ice King’s amnesia is a clear reference to real-world illness and seeing this depicted in a non-overstated way is so important to young viewers who may be going through a similar situation. Loss of memory and identity is difficult at any age, especially when it's someone we look up to and love. In the end, this sad story held a glimmer of hope, as it ends with Marceline at peace with what’s happening and still willing to sing with her friend. 

7. She-Ra

This is a show based on characters from He-Man. It follows a young soldier named Adora who is content with her life as a member of the Horde until she finds a magic sword and transforms into a superhero known as She-Ra. Adora decides to rebel against the Horde’s invasion, but her best friend Catra chooses to stay behind. As a result, the two friends are left on opposite sides of an upcoming war. 

Both Adora and Catra deal with the effects of growing up in the Horde, an abusive environment that allegories toxic households and families. The burden falls mostly on Catra; the show illustrates how Shadow Weaver pits the two friends against each other and how Catra begins to internalize the abuse and adopt characteristics of Shadow Weaver into her own personality. Her feelings of being abandoned by Adora and fears of inadequacy lead her down a dark path and corrupt her relationship with Adora. However, Catra is able to find redemption and healing by the story’s end. 

Themes of found family, friendship, and good triumphing over evil resonate with viewers of every age. 

8. Avatar The Last Airbender

A Nickelodeon classic, this iconic series follows a young boy called Aang on a world-saving adventure in a universe where people control the four elements of nature: fire, water, earth, and air. Aang is the Avatar, the only being who is able to manipulate all four elements. After awaking from a hundred-year sleep, Aang discovers that the fire nation has attacked in a quest to rule over all four tribes. He and his new friends, Katara and Sokka, must put a stop to the Fire Nation’s treachery and help Aang master all four elements in time to save the world. 

Avatar isn’t as mature as its successor, Legend of Korra, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from the effects of war and the toll it takes on these young characters. Sokka, Katara, Aang, and enemy Zuko are all thrown into a battle that shapes them in different ways. Aang faces an overwhelming fear of failure and inadequacy, while simultaneously mourning the death of his entire family and the extinction of his tribe. He is written realistically as a twelve-year-old boy, and the show balances serious moments with comedic ones to create a unique and enjoyable experience that is well-loved to this day. 

9. Legend of Korra

The sequel to Avatar the Last Airbender, this show follows seventeen-year-old Korra, the Avatar successor to Aang. It continues similarly to the original, but with different enemies and new, unique threats. 

This show features older characters and is aimed at a slightly older audience than Avatar the Last Airbender. It deals more directly with issues like PTSD, especially in its final season. After a nearly-fatal battle against the Red Lotus, Korra’s body is damaged and she is unable to walk. She also suffers from nightmares and struggles to sleep or eat. The feeling of being left behind by her friends and frustration of what has happened to her take a very obvious toll on her health, and she pushes away the people she loves because she feels like they cannot understand everything she’s gone through. 

One powerful message that Korra hears from Katara, a healer, and character from the original series, is that she must take responsibility for her own recovery. However, she has the support of her friends and family, who love her and want her to get better. This show slows down and takes the time to address these important issues, rather than skipping over them for the sake of the plot, and it does so in a realistic and moving way.  

10. Teen Titans

This animated series takes place in the DC Universe and follows a superhero team known as the Teen Titans, which is comprised of mainly former ‘sidekicks’ of the Justice League. It includes characters such as Robin, Starfire, Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Raven, and follows their adventures as superheroes and their everyday life as a not-quite-normal found family. 

This show is important for its inclusion of one of the main characters called Raven. She is the daughter of Trigon, a demonic being with supernatural abilities, and has her own dark powers that she fights to control. With the help of a gem in her forehead, she suppresses those abilities. However, we see her withdraw from the others, feeling different and alienated from them as she fights an internal battle that nobody quite understands. At times, she loses control and lashes out at those around her. 

Eventually, Raven learns to open up to those around her. She learns that she is worthy of love and friendship, and an asset to the team rather than a liability. 

Raven is a character that many people can relate to, especially those struggling with mental illness. Feeling different from others, unworthy of friendship, and loss of control are all metaphorical to the experience of being mentally ill. 

11. Young Justice

Another DC classic, this show follows a group of young heroes as they train and prepare to protect the world from evil and live up to the Justice League. Featuring characters like Robin, Ms. Martian, and Superboy, this show deals with the hardships and responsibilities that being a hero come with and shows the characters dealing with traumatic events in unique ways and coming together to heal. 

Episodes like "Disordered" (season 1 episode 17) show the ramifications of traumatic experiences, teaching kids that even superheroes struggle with feeling okay. This show has young, relatable characters that work together and leans on each other while facing challenges. It’s an entertaining, action-packed adventure that fans of DC comics, or superheroes in general, will love. 

Here is an analysis of this episode, and why "Disordered" elevates Young Justice from a good show to a great one. 

12. One Day at a Time 

One Day at a Time is a remake of the 1975 original sitcom. It features Penelope Alvarez, a veteran, single mother who works as a nurse and raises her two children with the help of her own mom, Lydia. The show is a comedy following the family’s misadventures as they navigate daily life, but it isn’t afraid to get real with issues like racism, homophobia, sexism, addiction, and trauma. 

In this story, Penelope is dealing with the aftermath of active duty. She suffers from depression and anxiety, and the show presents an honest and very real portrayal of what that looks like without making her appear weak. Instead, we see her getting the help she needs through therapy, medication, and honest communication with her family. Later, we see Elena dealing with anxiety attacks as well, which leads to a larger conversation about mental health and the stigmas around getting help. 

Despite these serious topics, One Day at a Time is laugh-out-loud funny and expertly written and acted. 

This show has been rated appropriate for ages 12+ by Common Sense Media and includes mild language and sexual themes. Please be mindful that this show deals with sensitive issues including alcoholism, substance abuse, homophobia, and racism. 

13. Cobra Kai

The Karate Kid (1984) tells the story of Daniel Larusso and his bully, Johnny Lawrence, whom he rightfully defeats in a karate tournament under the guidance of his sensei, Mr. Miyagi. Cobra Kai tells the other side of the story. 

Years after the events of the movie Lawrence and Larusso continue their long-time rivalry with their own, warring karate studios. The show features their high-school-age students (and children) learning to fight but also dealing with love triangles, drama, and family issues. 

Cobra Kai shows that there a million sides to every story, none of them completely right or wrong. It depicts healthy and unhealthy relationships between adults and students, specifically highlighting the toxic dynamic between Johnny Lawrence and his sensei, Kreese, which deeply affects him even into adulthood. On the flip side, we see Daniel Larusso supporting his daughter, Sam through panic attacks after a traumatic incident and helping her find the courage to overcome her fear. 

All in all, the show illustrates young characters in difficult situations doing the best they can, and adults trying to be better than they used to be. 

This show is rated TV-14 and is suitable for older kids and adults. 

14. Barbie Vlog Series

YouTube online vloggers are huge right now, and not even Barbie wanted to miss out on the fun. Vloggers offer creators the chance to address their audiences directly and allow more freedom than traditional television shows. 

The creators behind Barbie have developed an animated vlog series starring and ‘created by’ Barbie herself. The channel follows internet trends that other vloggers would partake in, like different challenge videos and "collabs" with friends. It also uses Barbie’s voice to talk about real issues that young people are facing. 

It’s an easy and enjoyable watch, especially for kids who already know and love Barbie. 

15. Sanders Sides

Thomas Sanders started out as a creator on Vine but switched to YouTube videos after the app shut down. What began as a fun video about his personality, intended to introduce himself to his new audience evolved into an extended one-man series all about mental wellbeing and self-acceptance, and discovery. 

Sanders portrays the different aspects of his personality as individual ‘characters’ based on logic, creativity, morality, and anxiety. Sanders Sides - the sides being the different aspects of himself has Thomas debating and discussing the problems he faces in his life. Each episode is well-researched and focuses on teaching the viewer just as much as entertaining them.

One of the most important things Sanders accomplishes is the inclusion and development of the character Anxiety. Anxiety is introduced as something scary and mysterious that only wants to hurt Thomas. However, as Thomas (the character version of himself) begins to work through his issues with the other ‘sides’, he slowly learns how to accept Anxiety as a part of himself rather than an enemy that needs to be feared. This very literal message of self-acceptance and education about anxiety sends a positive message, especially to younger viewers, who may see aspects of themselves in Anxiety or in Thomas’s experience. 

Sanders has performed in theater for years and brings his acting chops and musical talents to the show as well. The series is kid-friendly and contains adequate content warnings, and the humor and writing are impeccable.

Summary

Being young comes with its own unique challenges, many of which are invisible to others. As brains develop and social and political issues grow more and more prominent, it can be difficult to keep a clear head. Mental health is fundamental to overall health at all ages, even as children. 

It is so important to educate and inform children about maintaining good mental health and having characters and stories addressing these topics can help normalize these conversations and begin removing the stigma our society has around mental illness. 

By introducing media that teaches lessons about mental well-being, you are taking the first step towards a better and healthier future for your child.

A twenty-something writer trying to find her place in the world. I love my dog, mugs of hot tea, and all things make-believe.

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