Five Tips to Starting Mental Health Conversations with Your Teen
A third of teens experience poor mental health. Help them talk about it.
Beginning a conversation about your youth’s mental health can be one of the most impactful — yet intimidating — things a parent or caregiver can do. You want to do everything you can to support your teen’s health and well-being but starting a discussion about an emotional and sensitive topic, like mental health, may feel overwhelming.
Research has shown that good communication between parents and teens has several evidence-based effects. Adolescents engage in fewer risk-taking behaviors during the teenage years when parent-adolescent communication in strong. Moreover, teens who enjoy positive communication with their parents or caregivers are likely to experience better mental health. When parents communicate well with their teen, he or she feels respected and understood. Healthy communication with parents has also been shown to lower depressive symptoms in adolescents.
Many parents and caregivers struggle to initiate conversations about feelings with their teen. With the right approach, it is possible to get teenagers to share their feelings. Here are five tips to help guide the conversation:
Make it comfortable for your teen to share. Teens are generally more willing to open up when there’s an activity involved as opposed to a scheduled, sit-down discussion. If you want more insight into what’s taking up space in your teen’s head, engage them in something that feels natural and free of pressure. Shooting hoops or getting dessert are great options. If you’re up against a busy schedule, look for small chat windows, like in the car. Use your time together to get a feeling for whether therapy would provide additional help for your child that might be outside your skillset.
Model Vulnerability: If you want your teen to share more openly with you, model openness yourself. Tell your teen about a time when you made a mistake. Describe what you learned from it and how you grew as a result. By revealing your humanness, you teach your teen that it is alright to be vulnerable; thus, they may be more apt to share something meaningful in return.
Ask Open-Ended Questions: If you feel frustrated with one-word responses to your inquiries, stop asking questions with “yes” or “no” answers. Try open-ended questions that encourage your teen to share more, such as “How are you feeling about your English grade,” or “Tell me about your day.”
Validate their Feelings: Many teens don’t have enough life experience to know whether what they’re experiencing is common. They may feel like the only person on the planet who feels a certain way. When you validate their feelings as natural and typical, it can help ease their stress and anxiety. They feel understood and supported which in turn makes it easier for them to open up. Reassure them that their feelings make sense. Validation is a large part of fostering healthy communication in general, and especially with teens.
Emphasize that it’s Treatable: Some youth may feel shame if they are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. It’s important to assure them that it’s common to feel this way at times and that there are effective treatments available. Reassure them that this isn’t their fault and emphasize their strengths so they understand their mental health challenges don’t define them. Ask your teen what he or she thinks they need to feel better.
If your teen is experiencing severe or persistent symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, excessive guilt or worry, it may be necessary to seek the help of a mental health professional. Encourage your teen to speak with a therapist or counselor for help. Consider looking into your health plan to understand the resources you may have in addition to your coverage options.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Mental Health | DASH | CDC
National Institutes of Health: Teens are talking about mental health | NIH MedlinePlus Magazine
Penn Medicine: 6 Facts Parents Should Know about Mental Illness in Teens (pennmedicine.org)
About Camino a Casa
Casa Pacifica is the largest non-profit provider of children’s and adolescent mental health services in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. The agency’s Camino a Casa program, available to clients with private insurance, provides behavioral health care to youth ages 12-17 who struggle with emotional dysregulation and high-risk behaviors that jeopardize their safety at home, school and/or community.
Intensive short-term residential treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and in-home behavioral health services comprise Camino a Casa’s full continuum of adolescent mental health care.
Learn more at www.caminoacasa.org