Helping teens open up about their mental health
Using the right approach, along with an SEL program, could help teenagers become more transparent with their mental health
Despite what kids believe, their main support system is not within their friendships. As a parent or counselor, you can allow them to believe their friends are their support providers. However, their fellow 14-year-old friends are not equipped with the maturity and understanding to help them with the big problems. Kids need a sounding board–a connection with their family to help them with feelings of depression, anxiety, fear of failure, and other related concerns.
Before trying to help your child “open up” emotionally, remember it’s developmentally appropriate for them to close you off to some degree. They are developing a sense of self and individuating. They’re more private with their friendships and getting them to engage with you means they need to trust you and your intentions.
Developing this dynamic is best done on the teen’s terms. It’s not going to happen the way the parent wants, unless they adapt with some new strategies and shift expectations. There’s a payoff with this approach, because teens will learn they have a source of guidance and unconditional support—two critical elements of getting through the teen years safely and positively.
Find the right time and place
Parents wanting deeper conversations with their kids need to set aside enough time. Don’t pop into your teen’s room and say, “Hey, let’s talk!” if you only have five minutes. If they open up to you and then drop a bombshell, but you have to go on a Zoom call in a minute, then you’ve wasted the opportunity. Avoid the “big talk” when you can’t both be present and in a clear state of mind. If either of you are stressed or angry, then you need to find another time to chat.
When you engage with your teen, you must show full engagement and integrity with the conversation. If they feel you are “going through the motions” they will quickly check out. Talking to them in the car often works well because it is non-confrontational and can take the edge off. If you’re at home, then don’t talk around their siblings, and consider using an activity as a buffer.
Avoid the kitchen table, and do not ask them to sit in your home office while you are behind your desk. You aren’t talking to an employee, so adjust your body position with less eye contact and make sure you are not physically or emotionally imposing. To further embed trust after your conversation, do not let your child hear you talking to your friend about your talk. Keep your discussions private (within your spouse/partner) but keep it a tight circle.
The right kind of empathy
Take an empathic tone and message with your kids but avoid the “I understand what you are going through because I also went through it.” Kids do not want to be reminded you were once a teen and now you’re a grownup with all the answers.
Act with empathy to what they are saying, but do not try to relate to them by talking about your past. They do not care about your fights with grandma 35 years ago or how you’re mad about missing a night with friends due to COVID-19. They want to talk about themselves, so ask questions and listen. Really show an interest in their problems, with statements like “what is it like to go through this” or “how does COVID-19 make you feel when it comes to your friends?”
Avoid conversation-killers such as closed ended questions. Asking “how are you” will elicit one-word answers, so instead ask about feelings with prompts to “tell me more.” The goal of an open conversation is not for your child to feel interrogated, but to greet them as an ally and understand that life through their eyes is difficult—because it likely is.
Judging their actions and words might be tempting, but you need to find a different communication path. Instead of remarking on the amount of time they spend playing Fortnite, you can say, “I noticed you aren’t going outside and playing soccer as much as you used to.” Make factual statements instead of evaluations. And avoid sarcasm because in this context it hurts their self-esteem because it comes across as judging instead of earnestly helping.
Help them navigate stress and life
As your child opens to conversation and you learn more about their thoughts and stressors, keep in mind the goal of such engagement. You want to help them understand themselves better and develop coping skills. Do not tell them what they should or should not be doing in the context of the conversation. Of course, you can still tell them to clean their rooms or treat their sibling with respect, but for the “big talks” you need discourse, not reprimands.
For example, if your child is skipping several online school sessions, you can make it clear the expectations, but turn the conversation towards their positive traits. Remind them about all of their determination in other aspects of their life and how they can channel that towards schooling. Every kid possesses positive attributes and traits, even if they are in a bad place or “in trouble.” Ask what they want. It’s a simple gesture, but a great change of pace for kids that are always being told what to do. It gives them a measure of free will, lowers your stress, and encourages them to openly discuss their frustrations and desires.
At school, kids have an opportunity to open up their feelings when engaged in social-emotional learning (SEL) programs. These programs provide kids with a secure and familiar way to share their thoughts. Kids are digital natives, and they divulge a considerable amount of inner thoughts and fears behind the comfort of a screen.
This is a generation that’s comfortable texting their thoughts, so SEL learning offers a useful companion to in-person parental conversations. It’s another conduit for kids to open up emotionally and personally, so parents and school staff can work together to prevent self-harm, avoid depression, and lead fulfilling lives.