Talking to Teens About Mental Health
If you’re a parent of a teenager, you may be noticing some unfamiliar behaviors from your kiddo, such as sleeping a lot more, angry outbursts or irritability, less interest in the things they used to enjoy, vague answers to questions or even just a general reluctancy to want to talk to you anymore.
Abrupt changes in their mood or characteristics can lead you to wonder whether they’re struggling with their mental health or just being a teenager. But how can you respect their space and growing independence while also making sure they’re safe and doing well?
Fonny Wright, a licensed professional counselor and director of behavioral health clinical services at Texas Health Seay Behavioral Health Plano, says starting a conversation with your child about mental health is important at any age. And while you may think you’re facing an uphill battle talking to your teen, with a little patience, and some understanding, you can move mountains.
Turf, Tone and Time
When your kiddos enter their toddler years, you can often find yourself talking to them about their feelings and helping them make sense of the world around them. But somewhere along the way, that conversation may drop off as they get older and want to make sense of everything on their own without the help of their parents.
That’s especially true as they enter their teenage years. And since teens are notorious for being a bit closed off, it can seem like an impossible task getting them to open up with you again. You may be wondering how to have that conversation with them without them immediately shutting down.
When talking about anything sensitive, it’s important to always think about turf, tone and time. Turf is where you plan on having the conversation, tone is how you approach the conversation, and time is, well, the time you plan on having the conversation.
“Make time to be together and don’t have an agenda of what you want to accomplish,” Wright explains. “Bring up mental health when you’re just hanging out or on the way to pick up food or while you’re doing chores at home.”
Wright adds that you’ll want to be cognizant of your child’s willingness to engage with you on the topic. If they back up and change the subject, or you can tell that they’re maybe having a bad day, you might want to wait until a better time.
Additionally, it may help to approach the subject with just one parent, since facing two parents at once might overwhelm your child or create an atmosphere of confrontation or that they’re in trouble for something.
If they don’t open up the first time you ask, don’t be afraid to keep finding times to ask them again.
If your child does seem open to having the conversation, this is where tone comes in. Gently explain any behaviors that might be worrying you, or say you just simply want to check in to make sure everything is alright or to see if there’s anything you can help them with.
Then follow up with open-ended questions. It can be easy to make assumptions, or you may feel it’s easier to facilitate the conversation if you guess at how they may be feeling, but leave it open for them to explain in their own words.
This can look like:
- “I’ve noticed you haven’t spent much time with your friends lately. Did something happen that you want to talk about?”
- “I’m worried because you’re sleeping more than usual. Is there anything I can help with?”
- “I’ve noticed you get angry so quickly these days. Can you help me understand what’s bothering you?”
- “I’m concerned because you haven’t put much effort into your schoolwork lately. Is something going on at school that I can help with?”
- “I’ve noticed you’re not as interested in a lot of the things you used to love. I know interests change, but has something big happened that you want to talk about?”
- “I’m worried because you seem to be down more these days. Has something happened to make you feel this way?”
Wright adds it’s important to approach the conversation in a non-judgmental, non-accusatory, non-argumentative way. Questions such as “Why can’t you get up on time? What’s wrong with you?” just lead to conflict and not much of a conversation or solution.
Be Ready to Listen
Once you get the conversation started, sit back and actively listen. Active listening requires more than passively listening to someone. It involves engaging by showing empathy and support versus just throwing out a token “Wow” or “That’s crazy!” Active listening not only shows your teen that you care about what they have to say, but it helps them feel seen and heard.
You can engage in active listening by first giving them all of your attention. Put down the phone, turn off the television, step away from the computer, etc. If you can’t stop what you’re doing, take a moment to explain. “I want to give you my full attention, but I need to take care of this first. I’ll be done in about 20 minutes, and then you’ll have my undivided attention, I promise.”
Avoid interrupting, finishing their sentences, or filling in their pauses. Let them share in their own time, even if it takes them a while to get the words out. Although it’s going to be tough, try to focus on what they’re saying, not what you want to say to them.
It can also be helpful to take a moment to pause, collect your thoughts then summarize out loud what they’ve said to make sure you understand fully and there’s no mix-up. Something along the lines of, “It sounds like you’ve been feeling sad and hopeless lately, and you can’t find the energy to do anything. Is that right?” If you aren’t sure what they mean, ask for clarification.
Even with clarification, you might not understand exactly what they’re feeling. That’s OK, but avoid minimizing or invalidating their pain by saying things like:
- “Oh, that’s not a big deal.”
- “Everyone feels like that sometimes.”
- “I was moody all the time when I was a teenager. You’ll grow out of it.”
- “When I was a teenager, we didn’t worry about this kind of stuff.”
- “There are more important things to be worrying about.”
Instead, offer compassion and validation:
- “I can see why you feel overwhelmed.”
- “That sounds pretty rough, but you’re not alone. I’m here to support you.”
- “I imagine feeling sad all the time must make you feel exhausted. You’re going through so much.”
“Listen — really listen to them,” Wright adds. “Provide assurance that mental health issues are normal, and everyone deals with them. Yes, everyone. And make sure to keep things confidential, especially if they ask you to. Remember that your child has talked with you about things in confidence, so don’t share the conversation with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other parents, even if you’re just looking for their guidance on what to do.
“While you should acknowledge your concerns and how you feel, you shouldn’t let your emotions rule your response,” she adds.
Help Them Get Support
While chatting with your teen, it can be helpful to ask them what they’d like to do next or what their solution is for seeking help. Maybe they think just having an open channel of communication with you is enough for now, or maybe they think they may need professional support from a counselor at school, a therapist or a psychiatrist.
If they resist the idea of therapy at first, talking to a school counselor, family pediatrician, or favorite teacher may seem like a more accessible and comfortable solution for them right now. Down the road, they might be more willing to consider therapy when other trusted adults encourage them to reach out.
Talking over what happens in therapy can also help demystify things for them. If they seem worried about being hospitalized or forced to take medication, explain that a therapist will listen to their thoughts, offer support without judgment, and help them explore ways to start feeling better, and there are other treatment options that don’t require the use of medication.
While your action plan will be guided by the urgency or nature of what your child shares with you and their willingness to seek help, Wright adds that any thoughts of suicide or harming themselves or others, especially if they have already done so in the past, or have a plan or intention, should be taken seriously and you should seek immediate medical attention.
Seek professional support right away if you notice any of the following signs in your child:
- writing stories or poems about dying
- exhibiting risk-taking behavior, including substance or alcohol use
- talking about dying or wanting a way out of their pain
- becoming more withdrawn from others
- saying others would be better off without them
- giving away personal possessions
“If your child shares any bizarre thoughts with you, says they hear strange sounds, says they have thoughts of going to sleep and never waking up back up, or gives you any reason to be concerned about their wellbeing, lean into that parental instinct and advocate for your child,” Wright says. “He or she needs you and early intervention can change the trajectory of their life.”
Remember, asking about suicide will not give someone the idea. While it can be difficult, asking your child about suicidal thoughts makes it easier to get them the right support.
You know your child and what is typical behavior for them, so if something seems off, something is probably off.
“Everyone has bad days, but teens may not know the difference between a more serious mental health issue and simply having a bad day or week.
“Relay to them that it’s completely normal to have feelings of sadness, stress, or even be anxious about conflict, disappointment, loss, or other upsetting situations,” Wright says. “But also let them know that such feelings should match the situation and should resolve as the situation improves. If not, they may need some extra help and you can help them.”
Above all, don’t forget to emphasize that you’re on their side, you are not angry at them or ashamed of them, and you will do whatever it takes to get them support. While they may not seem like they’re listening to you, they are, and your words can make a difference.
If you are starting to see signs of depression, anxiety or dysfunction in your teen’s day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Health resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.