Having a conversation with your teen about mental health can be a touchy subject.
Since stigma exists around mental health issues, your teen may have shameful or defensive feelings at the mere mention of the topic.
Don’t let that deter you.
Even though a host of social and physiological factors may put them at risk for mental health problems, the average teen knows very little about taking care of their mental health.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness reports that 1 in 5 teens live with a mental health condition, and less than half of those receive the support they need. While mood problems are common in teens, they also can suffer from eating, personality, substance abuse, and psychological issues.
By talking to your teen about mental health, you can help them identify their challenges and increase the likelihood of them getting the help they need. For teens with mental or emotional struggles, your conversation might encourage them to reach out for help.
With insights from multiple mental health experts, here are some suggestions for how to talk to your teen about the importance of mental health.
7 Practical Tips on How to Talk to Your Teen About Mental Health
Find the Right Time and Place
This is key. It’s best to give yourself ample time and possibly an activity to do when you discuss mental health with your teen. They might feel more comfortable if you’re doing something where you don’t have to maintain direct eye contact. An activity, such as baking or throwing a ball, can help take the pressure off.
Link Mental Health to Physical Health
Help take the stigma out of mental health by explaining that it’s akin to physical health and that people of all ages need to be aware of and take care of their mental health.
Explain the benefits of good mental health by noting how it’s important for coping with stress, feeling good about yourself, and succeeding in life. You might also mention that mental health varies, depending on circumstances or the season of life, and may require them to seek out help at different times. If a mental health issue is confirmed, let them know it’s nothing to be ashamed of and that there are treatment options available to help with their situation.
Bad Days Happen
Your teen may not know the difference between a more serious mental issue and simply having a bad day or week. Help them understand that feeling low, stressed, or anxious about conflict, disappointment, loss, or other upsetting situations is completely normal. Let them know that such feelings should match the situation and should resolve as things improve.
Warning Signs of Mental Health Issues
Make your teen aware of the warning signs of mental health concerns (listed below). Having even one of these signs may be an indication that they need to speak up and reach out to an adult they trust for help; whether that’s you, a doctor, caregiver, counselor, teacher, or another trusted relative or family friend. Remind them that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
10 Common Warning Signs of Mental Health Concerns for Teens
- Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
- Seriously trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans to do so
- Severe out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors
- Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason
- Not eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to lose weight; significant weight loss or weight gain
- Seeing, hearing, or believing things that aren’t real
- Repeatedly using drugs or alcohol
- Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits
- Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still
- Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
Highlight the Danger of Stereotypes
Remind your teen that mental problems aren’t always shown realistically or respectfully on social media, in movies/TV, or even in the news. As with any health struggle or disability, people with mental issues deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. A mental problem isn’t a moral failing.
Talking to your teen about mental health concerns might help them open up and share. Experts almost universally agree that the best thing you can do is simply listen to your teen. Don’t give advice. Don’t judge. And don’t compare, dismiss, or minimize their feelings.
Also, it’s important not to react emotionally. If there are moments of silence, that’s okay. This will encourage your teen to continue talking. Say things like “tell me more.” Be curious.
Ask, “What can I do to help you right now?” Experts remind parents that teens know a lot about themselves. It’s presumptuous of parents to think they know better. When you listen, they may feel relieved and less alone.
Discuss Brain Healthy Habits
Don’t forget to talk about brain care. After all, good mental health is a byproduct of a healthy brain!
Talk to your teen about the many things that can support their brain health, like:
- Protecting the brain from injury
- Getting adequate sleep (about 7 to 9 hours each night)
- Participating in brain healthy sports
- Eating brain healthy foods
- Drinking plenty of water
- Making time for relaxation and recreation
- Taking brain-boosting supplements
What you model for your teen is far more powerful than what you tell them. Live a brain-healthy lifestyle and take care of your own physical and mental health so you can make mental health a priority for your entire family!
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