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How to Talk to your Teen About Mental Health

By Parviz Nafari, MFT, Woodland Hills PHP/IOP As children grow and go through a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional changes, it can become more and more difficult to distinguish between normal teenage “moodiness” and a legitimate mental health concern. Teens are often not able to articulate their thoughts and emotions easily, which makes it understandable that teens don’t usually express their experiences to their parents. However, a parent could start a conversation that might help protect a teen’s well-being and future.  For some teens that are really struggling, a conversation with a parent could be absolutely necessary. The most dominant mental health disorder in adolescence is depression. Although the exact cause of the rise in depression is unknown, contributing factors such as school transitions, social and academic stressors, hormonal changes, family history of mental health disorders, and early traumatic experiences have been identified as major triggers.  We must also consider the existential questions that their developing brain begins to investigate during these challenging times. Such questions as, “Who am I? Where have I come from? Why am I here?” and, “Where am I going?” add to the intensity of their struggles. If you believe your teen might be struggling with signs of depression or has a significant change in behavior, the best thing that can be done is to let him/her know that you have noticed some changes and that you are available to listen to what they are going through.  Refrain from asking too many questions, do not push too hard, and let them know that you will be available when they are ready to talk. Keep in mind that what you are dealing with might not be logical at first; after all, how anyone would make sense of a teenager’s seemingly moody behavior? Therefore, the conversation that you initiate must come from a compassionate, caring, and loving place. Asking, “Why?” typically does not get to the core of the conversation. They probably don’t know why they feel the way they do either. Here are a couple of suggestions for an invitation to a dialogue:

  • “I have noticed you have been quiet lately, I am here any time you want to talk.”
  • “It is okay to be sad, but if you are feeling like this all the time, it’s important that I can listen to you share about it.”

Validate their feelings and thoughts. It can be very helpful for them to hear acknowledgements, such as “high school can be tough,” or “I know you want to be the best you can be,” and let them know that it is normal to feel stressed at times. Generally speaking, teenagers have a short attention span and might not have patience to talk about such difficult subjects. Time your conversations and know it might take a while for them to share with you.  One time that might be ideal to bring up the conversation with them could be while in transit on the way home from school.  That time could be comfortable for your teen because they know the conversation will not last long and they have the control over how much they are ready to share. Then, once they share, do your best to be content with what they shared and do not press for more when they are done.  Pushing for more information and conversation could turn them off, and the point is to leave the door open to more conversations. Most importantly, do not try to talk them out of their mental health issues or explain why they “shouldn’t” feel a certain way.  Be open and available to listen to their reality.  If they share things that are concerning, seek professional help.  Start with a conversation with your teen and you might just be a part of helping them work through it.