How to Tell Your Parents or Caregivers You’re Struggling
By Katie Hurley, LCSW
This is a challenging time for all of us. Most of the teens I work with have been experiencing added stress and anxiety, along with the usual emotional challenges of these years. Things like the pandemic, the social and political environment we are in, and even the climate are affecting all of us. If you’re experiencing more stress or worry than usual, you are not alone.
But there are ways to work through difficult times and come to a better place. You don’t have to struggle alone, and your parents or caregivers can help you figure out what would help you manage this moment in your life.
It can feel hard to tell parents or caregivers how you’re doing and ask for help. You may be worried they won’t understand what you’re going through, will dismiss your concerns as a “normal” part of growing up, or you’ll cause additional stress for the family. You may even worry you’ll disappoint them.
The truth is that you can’t predict how your caregivers will respond. That can be anxiety-producing, but telling them may also give them some relief. It’s possible they’ve noticed something’s up, and they’re wondering how to help.
Talking about your feelings and experiences can be hard at first, but it gets easier once you get in the habit. It may require more than one conversation, but those conversations can become easier and more helpful once you and your caregivers find a way to connect.
Try these six tips to make the conversation a little easier.
1. Write down your thoughts ahead of time.
Before a conversation, it can help to jot down your thoughts so you make sure you get the most important points across. You can do it on your phone, in a journal, or on a piece of paper.
Consider how you’ve been feeling and how it impacts your day. If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety that’s making it difficult to participate in class, for example, you may say something like, “I find it hard to pay attention in class because I’m so anxious.” That gives your caregivers a concrete example of how what you’re going through is affecting you.
Try keeping a daily mood journal—again, you can just keep notes on your phone—for a few days, where you record your feelings and what was happening when your emotions shifted. That will help you understand your triggers and reactions, and make it easier to explain it to the people who care about you.
2. Practice ahead of time.
Once you know what you want to say, it can help to practice it with a friend, in your head, or—though it might feel weird—in front of a mirror. Talking it out ahead of time will help the words flow more naturally when you start the conversation.
3. Pick a quiet time.
Try to choose a day and time when you know you’ll have their attention, like a weekend afternoon. It may even help to plan ahead by saying, “I have something important to discuss with you this weekend. Can we pick a time to talk?” That lets them know you need alone time with them.
4. Let your parents or caregivers know how they can help.
If this is your first conversation about your mental health, your parents may not know exactly how to respond. They may have questions or try to make you feel better by telling you everything will be OK. It’s possible they’ll focus on finding the source of the issue or immediately offer solutions when you may want to start by explaining how you feel. You can ask them, “Would you mind just listening before we start brainstorming what to do about it?”
Be prepared to ask them for the help you need. You can be direct: “I know some teens have therapists to help them work through stuff like this. Can you help me find a therapist to talk to?” It’s also OK if you don’t know what kind of help you need. They may have ideas, and, if not, counselors at your school can talk with you about options. For more ideas, check out 7 Ways to Find Affordable Mental Health Care.
If your parents respond by saying that this is a normal part of growing up, stay calm and restate how what you are feeling impacts your life. Say, “This is more than a bad mood, and I don’t know how to manage it on my own. I don’t want to keep feeling this way.”
If you are having thoughts about suicide, it’s really important that you speak with your caregivers or another adult you trust—maybe a teacher, coach, or school counselor. Here’s a guide to make it easier to tell someone you are thinking about suicide.
5. Have a plan if your caregivers aren’t ready to help.
First, try again later. Sometimes caregivers need time to think and work through their reactions. It’s worth revisiting later, after you’ve all had time to think. If they continue to brush off or avoid the conversation, there are other ways to find support.
- Reach out to another adult you trust.
- Make an appointment with the school counselor or therapist, or speak with a teacher you know well.
- Try connecting to the TeenLine. You can text TEEN to 839-863 every day from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Pacific time (9 p.m. to midnight Eastern) to reach a trained peer counselor.
If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, including a substance misuse or suicide crisis, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use their chat function.
If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.
6. Keep the conversation going.
Mental health is with us our entire lives, and it changes over time. Sometimes we feel really on top of things and are enjoying most parts of our lives. Sometimes we’re struggling, but we have a sense of what will help us work through the problem. And sometimes we are really having a hard time, and it’s making regular life feel too difficult or impossible. When that happens, we need help and support from the people who love us.
These conversations may be awkward at first, but each one can help make the next one easier.