Many parents find it challenging to get their kids to talk about their mental health concerns. Yet it is essential that parents understand the stresses their teens face. Prompting open and honest conversations now will help you build skills that will support your child for years to come. Your teen may be defensive or fearful of opening up. Still, if you approach with sincere love and concern, you can encourage productive, healthy dialogue.
We sat down and spoke with Families for Depression Awareness Advisory Board member Mary Fristad, Ph.D., ABPP, Director of Academic Affairs and Research Development at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Big Lots Behavioral Health Services in Columbus, Ohio. She shared these tips for navigating a healthy and open dialogue with your teen about their mental health.
1. Find Shared Activities
Talking isn’t the only form of communication. Teens will be more likely to express and share their emotions and worries over an activity they enjoy. Find an activity that both you and your teen like to do, whether it’s cooking together, playing Scrabble, or walking the dog. Keep your expectations low and relax into the activity. Sometimes just sharing a positive experience is enough.
2. Use What Works for Them
How does your teen prefer to communicate? If your son only texts with his friends, start there. If your daughter likes journaling, create a shared journal where you write notes back and forth. Fristad also encourages parents to try less “eyeball to eyeball contact.” If you notice your teen seems uncomfortable talking face-to-face, try while in the car or sitting on the edge of their bed while the lights are out. This may feel safer to many teens than looking you in the eye.
3. Validate Their Emotions
As parents, we tend to try to solve our teen’s problems. Instead, make an effort to show your teen that you understand and empathize with what they are going through. Don’t be afraid to ask your teen about their feelings. Then reflect back on what they’ve said and validated it without rushing ahead to solutions.
4. Normalize What They’re Feeling
Everyone is struggling emotionally in some way and some more than others. It can be helpful to normalize their feelings by saying something like, “It’s been a horrible year in so many ways, how’s it been for you?” or “A lot of people are feeling depressed and anxious right now, how are you feeling?” You can also acknowledge briefly that you have concerns as well. Your teen may be more likely to talk if you go first.
5. Control Your Own Emotions
If your child comes home in an angry mood, rather than responding with equal emotional intensity, picture yourself as a container that can simply hold his or her feelings. Reflecting back with curiosity (e.g., Wow, you seem really upset, did something go wrong in your day?) offers the possibility of a fruitful conversation. If you are angry with your child, consider taking a cooling-off period for yourself before launching into a discussion of the conflict. Make sure that both you and your teen are ready to have the conversation before beginning. If your teen has had previous suicide attempts, Fristad notes that you may be wary to push into emotional territory with your child. These moments can bring up guilt, shame, anger, frustration, and many other emotions for parents. Remember to breathe—long and slow, and wait until calmer before proceeding.
“When your teen does start talking about their mental health, be sure to let them know you are happy that they are opening up to you,” counsels Fristad.
Be prepared to listen more than you talk. Remember to validate your child’s emotions to help them feel understood and build their overall emotional health.
Finally, Fristad advises, “Try to stay mindful of how important this is to your child and to your relationship with them.”
- Read tips on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of teen depression
- Watch our on-demand webinar: “Understanding Teen Depression” with Mary Fristad