10 Tips for Talking to Your Teen About Their Mental Health
By Katie Hurley, LCSW
Teens need to know where and how to get help for their mental health. As any parent of a teen knows, however, “I’m fine” is often the go-to answer when we ask how their day went or how they are feeling. That can leave parents feeling frustrated and confused. How can you help your teens if they won’t talk?
Schedules, time constraints, and moods can make it feel impossible to find the right time to broach difficult topics, but the reality is there is no perfect time and it isn’t a one-time conversation. Small interactions can be every bit as meaningful, especially for providing consistent connection and support.
Here are my 10 tips for talking to your teen about their mental health.
1. Be genuine.
Teens know when their parents are uncomfortable or anxious. If you aren’t sure how to start, worry about how your teen will react, or are just plain new at this, own it. Say something like, “This is hard for me to talk about and I’m not sure how to start, but I want us to be able to talk about all the things, even the ones that feel difficult to say out loud.”
Once you get the conversation started, be direct and simple: “I know this is a hard time for all of us, and I want to make sure I can support you in anything you need help with. Can we talk about how things are going for you?”
2. Connect over something your teen enjoys.
Contrary to popular belief, the car is not always the best place to talk to teens. Your teen may look forward to the car as a place to decompress and listen to music after a long day.
Engaging in an activity while talking is a good way to break the tension though. Walking together can be effective because you’re not face to face and the physical exercise reduces stress. If a walk doesn’t work, you can talk while playing cards or video games, baking or cooking, or any other activity your teen enjoys.
3. Get comfortable with silence.
It takes time to process information or questions about mental health, particularly if it isn’t something your family discusses often. Give your teen time to think. Interrupting a silence because you’re uncomfortable may actually prevent your teen from sharing their thoughts. Give them a few minutes and then follow up to acknowledge how difficult it is to talk. Say, “I know this is hard to talk about. The more we talk about it, the easier it will get.”
5. Take your teen seriously.
You may not relate to the struggle your teen is having, but it matters to them if they are sharing it with you. So do your best to listen and really consider what they are saying. When teens mention self-harm or suicide, it can be really scary to hear. You may feel the urge to downplay those concerns out of your own fear. Resist it. The good news is that your teen is sharing these thoughts with you, which means they are open to help and you can help them find it.
6. Use a simple rating scale.
It can be difficult for teens to put words to feelings when they feel overwhelmed, but starting with a simple check-in can help. Try asking for a number: “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 indicating that your mental health is really good and one indicating that you’re struggling to even get out of bed and to school each day, where would you rate your overall mental health right now?”
That opens the door to talking about how your teen feels each day. If they rate themselves between eight and 10, talk about what that feels like and what strategies help them stay in that zone. If they rate themselves between five and seven, say, “It sounds like some days are better than others and you’re having some struggles right now. I can understand that. Do you need support or solutions right now?” If they rate themselves a three or four, chances are they need some help. Acknowledge how difficult it must be by saying, “That sounds hard. It must feel like a challenge to get through the school day at times. Let’s think about some supports that may help you.”
If your teen rates themselves at a one or two, seek a licensed mental health professional.
If you are concerned your teen or young adult is considering suicide, it’s helpful to just ask them directly. It won’t put the idea in their head, but it may make them feel some relief that you see how much they are hurting. Here’s a guide to making that conversation easier.
8. Don’t push.
Your teen may insist they’re fine even when you see signs that they aren’t. Resist the urge to prove you know they’re struggling, since that will make them more likely to insist nothing is wrong. It’s better to keep checking in and stay curious. If your teen has a difficult day, give them time to relax first and follow up by saying, “It seems like today was hard. I’m here if you need to vent. I won’t offer solutions, unless you want me to. I can just listen.”
9. Work to stay open and calm.
It is not always easy to hear things your teen is struggling with, especially if they touch on areas that worry you. This is an emotionally tough time for teens, so they may not always share what’s going on with them in a calm, constructive way. Sometimes teens act out to get our attention, and it can be really hard not to react in anger.
We know teens open up when they feel connected, respected, and supported, so do what you can to stay calm and nonreactive during the conversation. Some deep breaths can help. If you still feel agitated or worried, it’s OK to let them know you need a minute to calm down because this is emotional for you too. That’s great emotional modeling for them. You’re demonstrating that you can take space to regroup when you feel overwhelmed by emotions.
10. Keep the conversation going.
Don’t worry about having all the answers right away. Talking about mental health is an opportunity to learn together. The important thing to remember is that each conversation builds on the previous one. Once you get into the habit of talking about mental health with your teen, it will become a much easier conversation to return to as needed.
And remember to talk about the good times they are having and connect with them around the things they like to do. They will be more likely to share when things are hard if you’ve shown interest when things are going well.