Day to day ups and downs are are a normal part of adolescence, making it difficult to distinguish between normal teenage moodiness and more serious mental health challenges. Your teen might not always be able to articulate what they’re going through, and they might not want to talk about it to you, but starting the conversation with them will help to protect their mental well-being.
Adolescence is time of enormous change for young people. Their bodies are changing, their brains are completely rewiring themselves, and it’s the time in their life when they’re at most risk of developing mental illness.
Most mental health problems start in the teenage years so it’s really important that you as a parent know how to spot the signs and talk to your teenager about their emotional wellbeing.
But it’s not always easy to know what signs to look for, and if you do have concerns and it can be tricky to know exactly what to say to a young person.
If you spot the warning signs of a mental health problem, it’s vital that you have a conversation about the issue before it escalates.
Research has shown that one in five young people experiencing psychological distress felt they didn’t have someone they could turn to in a crisis.
So, once you’ve noticed the mental health warning signs in your teen, how do you make sure they feel supported and what do you say to them?
You don’t have to be an expert in mental health to have a conversation with your teenager. Remember there’s no such thing as a perfect parent; you just have to be yourself and start the conversation.
One of the best things you can do for your teenager is to let them know that you’re available to talk to them on their terms. And here are some strategies you can use to do that.
Be there for them unconditionally. Let them know you’re there for them unconditionally and whenever they want – no limits.
A really good way to start the conversation is to:
Be curious about them.
We can wonder what it is like to be them, without judgement, assumption or demand.
What sense are they making of themselves? How do they think they are feeling? What ideas do they have about their behaviour?
And then we can use what we find out to see if there are any ways in which we can help them in areas they are struggling to make much sense.
In this way, we can build connection by using curiosity to understand better why our teenager feels they way they do.
We can do this by wondering out loud with them.
“I wonder how that might make you feel?”
“I wonder what happened to make you feel that way?”
“I wonder if you have any ideas why that happened?”
We can also use curiosity to share with our teenager what we think might be happening…
“I wonder if the reason you’re feeling so stressed is because you have been struggling to sleep recently “
Or “I wonder if it always feels like we say no to things and that is why you get so angry with us”.
Having used curiosity to better understand your teenager’s inner world, you can then show them acceptance of this inner world to show you Accept the way they’re feeling.
Acceptance in this context means accepting why your teenager acted in the ways they did, because we accept where the act came from, NOT accepting how they acted.
Offering acceptance in this way demonstrates to them that their inner world and feelings are safe and not being judged by you.
It also shows your teenager that they are heard and understood, that
we can validate their feelings, even when those feelings may be very different in some instances, to how we might feel.
So, if your teenager is sharing with you a difficult time at school or a challenge in how to manage a friendship fall out, one of the best things you can do is show them acceptance by acknowledging that school can be difficult and that relationships can be complicated, for example.
Conversations where we are able to show our teenager that we understand where their behaviour comes from, even when we don’t like it, because we are not judging the experiences that are driving that, shows them that their inner world and feelings are safe.
It shows them that we can sit together with any uncomfortable feelings.
Our curiosity and acceptance lead quite naturally into empathy
We can only truly empathise with our teenager if we have developed sufficient understanding of our teenager to be able to imaginatively enter into their inner emotional world, hence the need for the curiosity.
What empathy offers our teenager is an experience of our compassion towards them and our offering of support so they know they don’t need to deal with the difficult feelings on their own.
Knowing that you are there to emotionally co-regulate your teenager not only feels supportive and comforting but also communicates that what they are feeling is ok - its understandable and it is not too much for us to manage together.
You might also find that they find it difficult to stay defensive with you when you being empathic with them.
There are a number of ways of showing empathy to your teenager.
You can use what we call active listening which includes things like maintaining eye contact, not interrupting them, expressing interest and using validation and reflection to encourage continued talking.
You can also use what we call reflective listening which essentially means communicating in an emotional way, through your facial expressions, gestures, posture, and tone of voice
Empathy needs to be authentic - it needs to come from a place where you are really trying to understand the experience from the perspective of your teenager and are connecting with that perspective as this is one of the things driving their behaviour.
When we use curiosity, acceptance and empathy to talk to our teenage children about difficult feelings it’s important to:
Pick the right time to talk to them and give them an easy way out of the conversation, so they don’t feel pressurised and feel in control.
You can use the duration of a car trip or a walk as a time limit so they know there is an easy end to any difficult conversation and that they have control. Let them know that you will only talk until you pull into the driveway and then they can decide whether or not to keep the conversation going. It’s completely up to them – no questions or argument from you. ‘Do you think we can talk about how you’re feeling. Let’s do it like this. Let’s chat until we pull into the driveway or we finish the walk and then I promise we’ll talk about something else if you want to. Totally up to you.’
This can depend on the teenager and the situation. Sometimes your teen might respond better if you avoid eye contact. Try starting the conversation in the car or while you’re doing something else (like cooking dinner) rather than when sitting down and facing them. Then there might be other times when they’ll appreciate the one on one close attention from you. Teenagers will often open up late at night. When it’s late and dark outside, the rest of the world seems a bit more removed – no distractions, no expectations. They won’t always talk of course – sometimes they’ll have nothing to say, or they might not feel like talking – but if they’re going to talk, late at night seems to be the time they do.
Try and be gentle but persistent and available but not intrusive.
Your teen might not open up straight away – and that’s okay. Keep trying but be mindful of pushing too hard. he main thing is to keep making yourself available for when they’re ready. So check in with them regularly, but don’t be too intrusive.
Don’t try to talk them out of their worry or concern.
Even if their thinking seems irrational or their thoughts trivial to you, it isn’t that way to them. Validate them, ‘It’s bothering you isn’t it,’ or ‘I can see how upset you are,’ so they know they can come to you again.
And be okay with silence
You don’t have to have all the answers, nor should you have to do all the talking. Teenagers need their parents to listen to their concerns openly and without judgement.
Talking to you teenager about their inner feelings and worries can be really difficult for many parents. So I genuinely hope the techniques I’ve shared today will help you to start those conversations to support your teenager’s mental wellbeing. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments, I’d be happy to answer them.
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