We need to talk about teens and mental health. I know it’s in the back of everyone’s mind as a huge and overwhelming topic. The truth of the matter is that we, as parents, need to lead. Here are 6 tips for getting started.
When it comes to mental health, parents need to get involved and we have to help our kids open up and seek help. Where and when does this start in our lives with our kids?
Honestly, it should start early and be spoken of often. If there is a family history of mental health issues in your family, the more you talk about it and the earlier you start, the better.
If you haven’t started, don’t wait until next week or until you see warning signs. Our teens live in a world of mass shootings and suicides. They need guidance to navigate the path of hormone changes and middle/high school drama to the other side.
A relationship built on trust and understanding does not happen overnight. It happens after years of strength, honesty, openness and encouragement.
We are in the day and age where kids as young as seven years old have not only attempted suicide, but have succeeded and we no longer have the luxury of the simple “it’s my way or the highway” parenting. It’s terrifying.
I’ve searched high and low for tips, tricks and real ways to get my teen to open up more. I’ve talked to friends, coworkers, neighbors and other moms online. I’ve read stories and blogs and news articles and psyche papers.
These are the 6 top things that have created positive results in my relationship with my child.
1. No Judgment – no matter what
This takes work and it takes time. You will actually have to prove that you are not going to be judgmental of your child.
If your teen already has experience with you judging their actions, feelings or friends, it will take even more to earn their trust. They need to know that no matter how bad of a situation they may be in, you will not make them feel even worse or say “I told you so”.
Getting your teen to open up and seek help from you may require a lot of restraint at first. It will mean that you are not going to able impart your years of wisdom on them in a way that will make them feel negatively. If you cannot do this, find an adult who can and make sure your child spends time with them.
Have them go shopping, out to eat, to a movie or participate in a fun run. Anything to build that trusting relationship. Mental health is not something to be prideful about, it does not matter which adult is trusted in a teens life, as long as there is someone.
2. Share Personal Experiences
It’s important for your teen to know they aren’t alone. It’s important for them to know that it’s possible to get through the years of middle and high school without hurting themselves or someone else.
It’s human nature to focus on the negative and so many teens hear of others who have hurt themselves and they may relate to those feelings. In the throes of depression, it may feel like their best option or even envy another person’s decision to take their own life. Adults feel that way when depressed, why wouldn’t a teenager?
The important thing is that they know having suicidal thoughts and being depressed isn’t something to be ashamed of and self-harm is not the only path they can choose. While teens need to know someone else understands, they do not need to feel belittled. Make sure you tell them you or someone you know has felt the same way.
It has to be very clear that you care and are not going to think badly of anyone with mental health issues. If you do not have any personal experience, bring up an article or news story and express how you wish you could have helped or volunteer to help in the community.
Even if your teen doesn’t volunteer with you, you talking about it and helping those with mental health issues opens up that door.
3. Be Honest
Honesty with your children and in general is always the best policy. This situation calls for honesty even more than most. If you aren’t honest, you aren’t trustworthy. Period. This is likely the most important piece, but also the most simple.
A friend called me one night hysterical, as she’d admitted to her 10-year-old daughter that she had self-harming thoughts. My friend said her daughter saw her crying and flat out asked her and she, being an honest person, said yes. Her daughter was really upset, as any child would be, but she turned it into a positive experience.
She sat her daughter in front of her and told her that thoughts and actions were two very different things. She explained that one of the main reasons she would never act upon those thoughts was sitting in front of her face. I applaud her honesty. Her daughter now knows that self harm is a choice, not a necessity.
4. Talk Often
This isn’t a talk about the birds and the bees. Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions are ongoing and ever evolving which means so should your conversations. Each time you come into contact with a reminder is the number of times you should be talking about it.
They hear it and see it just as often as you do and they need an equal amount of “opposite force” to keep balance in their lives around these issues.
5. Discuss vs Command
At some point along the way, the conversations with your child need to shift from dictatorship to open discussions. Historically, this happens when kids go off to college and their parents really don’t have a choice anymore. Try making that shift as a conscious decision earlier.
I am not telling you to stop telling your teen to clean their room or get out of bed. However, providing a forum for regular communication and discussions about classes, friends and life in general creates a level of comfort and openness in those conversations.
It’s like the old adage that practice makes perfect. The more you talk, the easier it becomes.
6. Provide Space without Absence
This is the last one on this list, because it is the most difficult one. You need to allow your teen to talk when they are ready.
Allow them to choose to talk and not feel like they are being forced or coerced. The topic should be casually brought up as a general discussion, not an accusation and should continue to be brought up that way.
Your teen needs to know you are available and open to talk without feeling cornered and suffocated over it. Helping your child open up and seeking help for mental health is going to be a balancing act, but its a minimal price to pay considering what it could cost if you choose a different road.
All in all, every family and every teen is different and you should always seek the advice of medical professionals for any questions you may have regarding mental health. These are simply what I have found to be the most useful recommendations in creating a positive and open relationship with my child.