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5 Ways to Start Talking With Your Teen About Mental Health Help

A third of teens experience poor mental health. They need to talk about it.

Key points

  • One study has shown more than one-third of high school students report experiencing poor mental health.
  • The American Pediatric Association recently declared the mental health crisis among children a national emergency.
  • To support teenagers' mental health, parents can begin by modeling positive mental wellness habits.

It is well-documented that behavioral health concerns are on the rise among teenagers. The CDC released a study this year that showed more than a third of high-school students reported experiencing poor mental health. There’s no question that the pandemic drastically impacted the nation’s mental health, regardless of individuals' ages. But while COVID lockdowns have lifted and teenagers are more or less living “normally” again, that doesn’t mean that their mental health issues have suddenly lifted as well. A report in September from the Employee Benefit Research Institute showed a large increase in the usage of mental-health and substance-use services and spending among those under age 18 in recent years, and the American Pediatric Association has declared the mental-health crisis among children to be a national emergency.

As parents and caregivers, professionals, friends, and family, we take the issue of adolescent mental health very seriously. And while we all know that continued action must be taken to prevent and reduce the impact various stressors are having on our children, particularly during the tumultuous teenage years, it is easy to feel helpless when trying to connect with a teen on any topic, let alone mental health. However, if we can start by simply trying to understand the problem and proactively offering our support, we can truly make a difference in this crisis.

Talking to teenagers about mental health

How do you connect with a teenager about mental health? It’s by no means an easy task for parents and caregivers, but it has never been more crucial. The good news is that getting help has become less taboo in today’s culture. It is more acceptable for teens to talk about their feelings and receive mental health care, so they may be less resistant to an initial conversation with you than you may think. They might have friends in therapy and have probably seen some of their favorite celebrities open up about their mental health struggles and how they’ve gotten help.

After more than two decades working with adolescents, I’ve acquired a few tips that I like to share with parents, caregivers, and other loved ones to help engage with teens and guide them in a positive direction:

Be open and genuine. Help your teen feel less alone by being open and honest about your own mental health struggles and insecurities. Along with creating room for an open, honest dialogue about mental health, model healthy habits for them to emulate. Teens may not listen to you all the time, but they will watch how you act and react to your experiences. If you are struggling with your own challenges and not doing anything about it, how can you expect them to want to get help? Talk to them about how your therapy appointment went or the effect your morning meditation had on your day. Modeling positive mental wellness habits can encourage your child to adopt up their own good habits.

Listen and be comfortable with the silence. Sitting in silence is hard for most of us, but it can be incredibly important when trying to connect with your teenager and understand what they are going through. They themselves may not know how to vocalize their feelings and may take time to open up, so the more listening you can do, instead of speaking for them or jumping to assumptions, the better.

Acknowledge their feelings. It sounds simple, and thankfully, it is. Don’t try to shut down their feelings, make guesses, or offer excuses. Just listen and acknowledge that whatever they are telling you they are feeling is real. Their feelings may not always seem logical or accurate to you, but try to really listen and hear them out. There may be more going on in their lives than what you are aware of, and just acknowledging their feelings is an important step in the connection process.

Find a good location or activity. You don’t need to sit your teenager down on the couch, pull out a notepad, and have a super serious talk about how they are feeling. It is important that they feel relaxed, comfortable, and not threatened when you broach the topic. Take them out for a walk, go out for coffee, even take them shopping. Make sure that whenever you decide to bring up the topic, you’re in a comfortable place for your teenager or doing something low-key and relaxing for them.

Use existing resources. There are valuable resources out there that can serve you well in a conversation with your teenager, like this one from NAMI. To locate a good therapist for your child, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory or ask your child’s primary care physician if they have any recommendations. The more people who can watch out for your child, listen to them, and try to help, the better off their mental health will be in the long run.

More from Douglas Newton M.D., M.P.H.
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