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How You Can Help Support Teen Mental Health as a Parent or Trusted Adult

Support the teens in your life effectively. Discover key techniques to strengthen their mental well-being and open vital channels of communication.

Diving into the maze of teen mental health data can be daunting. The landscape is painted with alarming stats and figures about increasing rates of loneliness or anxiety. But, beneath the surface lies an important truth: while teens might wear a facade of indifference, many DO want to talk to trusted adults about their mental health.

95% of teens polled in recent research say they seek information from their parents or guardians about mental health AND genuinely trust your input. But here’s the catch: while they’re open to discussion, they often won’t bring it up on their own. Just under half of teens reported engaging in regular conversations.

That’s a huge gap — and a massive opportunity for you to step in and help your child or another teen who might be experiencing sadness, loneliness, anxiety, depression or other mental wellbeing challenges.

It’s important to begin having those chats as early as you can – half of mental health issues start by age 14. Helping young people talk about mental health early on can help focus on prevention and building their resilience before a specific mental health problem may occur.

While the teenage years can be challenging, filled with mood swings and arguments, it’s essential to understand that these behaviors are part of their development, both mentally and personally. Teens often face sleep deprivation due to early school start times and hormonal changes, leading to heightened stress sensitivity and irritability.

The silver lining is that most teens are open to these conversations about this. But just as each teen is unique, the approach will also vary. Let’s dive into a variety of options to help you delicately open those communication airwaves.

Tips for Adults on How to Talk to Teens about Mental Health

Like all things, timing is important.

“It’s important to make space to be together without an agenda or pressure. Conversation flows best when it naturally occurs,” according to the non-profit Mental Health America. “Consider bringing up the topic of mental health when doing chores, cooking, hanging out, or in the car. Be aware of changes in your child’s willingness to engage with you. If they are busy, or having a bad day you may want to wait until they are less preoccupied.”

If you don’t know where to start, or want to prepare in advance, the organization has a fantastic list of conversation starters and do’s and don’ts to help you through those first chats.

1. Encourage and normalize talking about emotions: Share your own feelings and experiences, handling emotions in a healthy way. Show them that everyone, regardless of age, goes through emotional ups and downs and it’s okay to express themselves. These practices might help you start:

Check-ins: Make it a habit to ask about their day and feelings, such as with a simple “What made you happy today?” or “Was there anything that upset you?”

Pop culture discussions: Use that show your child has been really excited about as a jumping off point. If the film tackles any emotional themes, try to discuss the characters’ feelings, relating them to real-life scenarios.

2. Listen and validate their experiences: Prioritize moments to truly hear them out. Listen to them and talk with them about what they are going through, ensuring they feel acknowledged without immediately jumping to solutions or judgments. Emphasize you’re creating a judgment-free zone.

Be open and curious and compassionate towards their experiences: Asking open-ended questions can be helpful to show you both want to deepen your understanding and will not immediately jump in and interrupt them. 

– If it is still a little hard to figure out what that might look like for you, watch this conversation between a mother who is a therapist and her daughter as they model a discussion about the impact of gun violence on mental health.

3. Make sure they know it’s not their fault: Opening up to you will be a really big, brave step for many teens. If they come to you worried about a situation, or if they are struggling with their mental wellbeing offer words of validation and comfort, reinforcing that their feelings and experiences are legitimate and important. You can do this by: 

Start with empathetic responses: Try and use language that shows understanding and empathy, making them feel seen and acknowledged. 

Normalizing the Struggle: Let them know that mental health challenges are a part of many people’s lives and do not imply any fault or flaw on their part. These experiences are a piece of their journey, not the entirety of their identity. 

Highlighting their strengths: Remind them of their unique qualities, talents, and passions, emphasizing that their mental health does not define their entire being. Encourage them to recognize and celebrate their achievements and attributes, both big and small.

4. Let them ask you questions: If you’ve created a space for these conversations, be ready to be open and help them with the information they need if you don’t have the answers. It’s OK if you don’t know. Find the resources to educate yourself and go over what you’ve learned with them. That follow through will show you are taking them seriously and show you care!

5. Talk about mental health using analogies: If talking about feelings in your family or community is a bit taboo, it can help to use an analogy. You can explain to teens that just like when you have a headache from straining your eyes too long, your mind can also feel strained and need a break when there’s too much stress.

A sprained ankle impacts how your legs feel or how you walk, just like anxiety or depression are challenges that happen in the brain. Remind them It’s all part of our health, and it’s completely okay to talk about any part of it, whether it’s our body or our mind.

6. Talk about self-care and prevention: Encouraging young people to try and take care of themselves regularly can be critical toward their future health and happiness. Things like maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and meditating are all ways to build good mental wellbeing and benefit them physically too.

Keep an eye on these areas too, because sudden changes or symptoms may give a hint that something is wrong. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a really helpful list of warning signs and symptoms to help you out.

This applies to you, parents and caregivers. Teens watch and model your behavior.

7. Remind them it’s a journey: That whole saying about being a marathon and not a sprint applies here, even if it’s not the immediate answer we all want. Emphasize that understanding and expressing feelings is a journey and that it’s okay not to have all the words or answers right away. Celebrate the small steps with them and revelations as they come!

Disclaimer: This website offers general information and is not a substitute for professional advice. We are not clinicians or trained professionals; this information should not replace seeking help from a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare provider for personalized guidance.