Like many parents, you might find it difficult to talk to your teen about certain topics. One important topic that should not be neglected is that of mental health issues. This can be a sensitive subject in many families and for many different reasons; teens might feel judged or you might feel apprehensive, particularly if you have mental illness or mental health issues in your family. Here are some tips on broaching the topic of mental health issues with your teen.
#1. Know Your Stuff
It’s best to go into a discussion about mental health issues with at least some knowledge of the topic that you want to talk about. If you are concerned that your teen has a mental health issue, it’s good to know the symptoms of the specific problem you’re worried about. If you have a mental illness running in your family, be ready to answer your teen’s likely questions about the condition, whether it’s likely genetic, and what the symptoms are.
Don’t worry if your teen has a question that you don’t know the answer to; it’s perfectly acceptable to look for the information together! Just be at least somewhat prepared with information on the topic so you can get the discussion off to a good start. Giving your teen some resources for additional information can be helpful, too; he or she can go through them alone or the two of you can check them out together.
#2. Think Through the Time and Place
During the morning when your teen is getting ready for school is not the best time to bring up a concern about mental health issues. Neither is in the middle of an argument with your teen. Think about where and when would be the best time and place for this type of discussion, especially if you think it will likely become emotional.
Choose a time and place where you will be uninterrupted for a period of time, in case the conversation takes longer than you might think. During a lengthy car ride might be good; this is an excellent place to have potentially difficult conversations, provided you will be able to concentrate on the road as well as the discussion. Your teen might be more open when he or she doesn’t have to look at you, as is the case when you are driving.
#3. Expect the Unexpected
Prepare yourself ahead of time to hear information that you weren’t expecting. You probably have a mental outline of how you would like the discussion to go; your teen might drop a bombshell that you weren’t anticipating. He or she also might refuse to discuss the topic, might get angry, or might pretend to have no idea what you’re talking about.
It’s essential that you remain as calm as possible, especially if your teen gets highly emotional or acts in a way that you weren’t expecting. If they blurt out information that surprises you, try to thank them for sharing and, if you cannot respond appropriately or in a helpful manner immediately, tell them that you need a bit of time to process.
#4. Involve a Support Person
Depending on the reason that you want to discuss mental health with your teen, you might want to gather some support for yourself and/or for your child. Your child’s other parent is a logical person to want to have involved. If that’s not possible, a close family friend or relative is another good choice. Keep in mind that if the situation is personal, your teen will likely want there to be some confidentiality, so choose someone who will keep what is said to him- or herself.
Don’t be afraid to have a counselor, therapist, or your child’s primary care doctor involved. If you suspect that your teen has a mental health issue, a professional can help you and your child navigate the situation. If you think that a multi-person intervention is needed, don’t hesitate to get a professional involved from the start; he or she will be able to best advise you how to proceed in this type of interaction. Try to look at is more of a conversation than a confrontation, but do involve someone well-versed in that type of communication.
#5. Let the Conversation Continue Later
Just like when you taught your child about drugs and the birds and the bees, a discussion about mental health issues is not usually one finite conversation. Instead, the subject can come up again and again once you open that figurative door. Don’t feel like you must say everything there is to say on the topic in one sitting. You can always revisit it later. Also, don’t think that you should be the only one talking. Your teen might not have a lot to say on the topic at the moment that you bring it up, but go ahead and give him or her some questions to think about and come back to later.
On that note, let your teen know that he or she can always come to you with questions and concerns about mental health issues. Build time into your day and week so that there is ample opportunity for unscheduled discussions about whatever is on your teen’s mind. Having open communication will make difficult conversations easier on both of you.
Approaching sensitive topics with your teen can take finesse and nerves of steel. With that said, any approach is usually better than no approach. If you have concerns about your teen’s mental health, then it’s very important that you broach them, either on your own or with the help of someone else. Remember that you only have a handful (or less) of years left to make mental health decisions for your child, so if you are worried that there’s a problem, now is the time to bring it up. Rely on a professional counselor to help you if you don’t feel that you can do it on your own, but do take action now or very soon so that your teen begins to get the treatment that he or she needs while you are still largely in charge.