Teenage mental health matters. For some families, mental health might be a daily conversation. For others, it might be a brand new topic, and it might feel a little uncomfortable at first. But when you consider that one in six teenagers experiences a mental health condition, the absence of mental health conversations can become a real problem.
In reality, teenagers with mental health conditions can experience overwhelming barriers, from stigma to discrimination. Mental health issues are all too common among teens and adolescents, and parents, caregivers, and school counselors all have roles to play in supporting teenage mental health and creating a world in which young people can thrive.
Starting the conversation isn't easy, but the more you talk about mental wellness, the easier (and more comfortable) it becomes. Here's how to push through the barriers and talk to your teen about mental health challenges.
Create a safe space to express vulnerability
When parents and other adults talk about their feelings and practice setting healthy boundaries, teenagers are more likely to open up about their own feelings. Most teenagers aren't as verbally expressive as their adult counterparts, and your teenager might not show as much emotion through body language or facial expressions.
So, how can you get your teen to open up about their mental health challenges? Start by talking about your own mental health concerns, experiences with therapy, and coping strategies. Maybe you've been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and now you're noticing some of the symptoms you've struggled with in your children. Maybe friends or family members have expressed their concern. It's important to create a safe space where your teenager feels comfortable talking about their feelings.
Let your teen know that having mental health issues is normal—and it's OK to be not OK. Assure your teenager that mental health issues aren't a sign of weakness and that mental health problems are highly treatable. Normalize self care and therapy to remind them that there are options when trying to process and navigate their struggles.
And remember: honest communication requires acceptance, compassion, and a judgment-free environment. Parents should never make their teenagers feel ashamed or guilty about their mental health. Dismissive words like "grow up" or "get over it" can send the message that being vulnerable is wrong or that it's not OK for your teen to feel what they're feeling.
Respect their personal and emotional boundaries
As a parent or caregiver, starting the conversation about mental health might feel like pulling teeth, and that's completely normal. Even if your teen doesn't open up right away, you should always respect their boundaries.
When you show concern and respect for your teen's emotional health, you'll build trust—and those trusting relationships between parents and adolescents can lower the risk of anxiety and depression. Instead of pushing your teen into uncomfortable conversations or violating their trust (by going through their phone or diary, for example), give them the space to open up and express themselves without pressure.
What's the best way to start the conversation? First, choose a good time. It's important to spend time together without an agenda or pressure. Mental health conversations tend to flow more smoothly when they occur naturally, so don't push it if your teenager seems uncomfortable. As a general rule of thumb, ask twice about personal or emotional questions. The first time shows that you're interested, while the second time shows that you care. After that, any further questions might make you seem invasive or nosy.
If you're not sure where to start, try bringing up mental health casually while doing chores, hanging out, or driving in the car. Pay attention to changes in your teen's willingness to express themselves, including their body language. If they're busy or having a bad day, consider waiting until a better time.
Of course, starting the conversation (and maintaining healthy boundaries throughout the process) isn't always easy for parents or teens. If you need some help approaching the subject, let your teen know that you've noticed changes in their behavior and other possible signs of a mental health problem. Maybe they're not hanging out with friends as much as usual, or they're spending more time alone in their room. Express your concern and let them know you want to listen.
Be open to conversations as they arise
Sometimes, deeper conversations happen when they're not planned—on the way home from school, during family dinner, or while watching TV. All of the listening, boundary-setting, and trust-building can come to fruition at unexpected moments, so it's important to keep an open mind.
When your teenager is talking about difficult feelings or mental health issues, be a good listener and don't interrupt. You'll have the opportunity to offer feedback and advice, but if you don't let them finish talking, they might stop talking altogether. Even if your teen is navigating suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, or a crisis situation, stay calm and nonjudgmental.
If your teenager starts the conversation about mental health, take steps to offer your unconditional support:
- Practice active listening. Take a few minutes to silence the voice in your head. Instead of rushing to judgment or expressing your concerns, pay attention to your teen and listen to what they're saying before responding. When you do respond, make sure to reiterate that you heard and understood what they said. For example, if they share that a certain class is causing them a lot of anxiety, instead of jumping right into advice-giving, you could start your response by saying, “It makes sense that algebra would stress you out…” and go from there. This isn't always easy, but practice makes perfect.
- Keep an open mind. If your teenager mentions any symptoms, take note of them. If they bring you information about a mental illness, read it. Learn as much as possible about teen mental health and the realities of mental health disorders. If you're not sure where to start, the Charlie Health blog offers mental health resources and information on common teen issues.
- Ask them what they need. Maybe your teen needs to take a few mental health days to relax, or perhaps they're already thinking about therapy. Ask them what they might need to feel better. If they haven't thought about it, offer to research and discuss treatment options with them.
- Acknowledge their issues. Teenage mental health matters. Poor mental health can have a negative impact on your teen's life, and untreated problems can stem into adulthood. Make sure to acknowledge their mental health issues, express your concern, and let them know that they deserve help. Most importantly, remind them that you support and love them unconditionally.
- Keep it confidential. It might be tempting to call your child's doctor or school counselor, but keep your conversation confidential (unless they're navigating a life-threatening mental health crisis). If you share your teen's concerns without their permission, you'll risk violating their trust, making it less likely that they’ll share with you again in the future or trust you with their mental health.
- Be their advocate. Finding the right therapist is like finding the right doctor. Sometimes, it takes time and effort (and some trial and error) to make sure you're getting the best care for your teenager. Prepare to be your teen's advocate, help them explore treatment options, and take steps to manage their mental well-being.
Don't shy away from difficult topics
Once the conversation starts, don't stray away from difficult topics. If you think your teenager might be having suicidal thoughts or dealing with a substance abuse problem, discuss your concerns and ask them. If the answer is yes, and they have a suicide plan in place, seek professional mental health care and contact emergency services.
Despite common misconceptions, you don't have to be a licensed mental health professional to help someone at risk of suicide. We all have a role to play in suicide prevention, and it's important to trust your instinct if you have a major concern. And remember: It's not always enough to pay attention to your teen's behavior. You also need to listen to their words. If they're having suicidal thoughts, they might talk about wanting to sleep forever, feelings of hopelessness, or feeling like a burden to others.
In addition, create a safe space to talk about traumatic events that you might've experienced, together or alone. Again, don't push your teenager to talk about anything they don't feel comfortable with. While some young people want to talk to a trusted adult, others might not feel comfortable talking about trauma—or at least not right away. Everyone heals from trauma at their own pace.
You might feel uncomfortable diving into serious topics, and that's OK. You shouldn't avoid the topic because you're scared of saying the wrong thing. In fact, many people with suicidal ideation feel relief when someone asks how they're feeling, and studies show that acknowledging suicide can reduce the risk of suicide.
Even if you're not sure what to say, offering your unconditional support can go a long way. Even simple questions like "How are you feeling?" can have a major impact on your teen's mental well-being.
Finding the right care for your teen can feel overwhelming, but there's good news: Your teen doesn't have to put their life on hold to meet with a licensed therapist. When your teen needs extra support beyond traditional once-per-week therapy, online therapy programs can help them make a positive change in their mental health.
At Charlie Health, our virtual intensive outpatient program (VIOP) offers holistic mental health support for adolescents, young adults, and their family members. Our state-of-the-art treatment program combines individual psychotherapy, supported groups, and family therapy to create an individualized treatment plan for your teen.