5 Ways to Get Your Teen to Open Up About Their Mental Health
Mary Fristad, Ph.D., ABPP
Many parents find it challenging to get their kids to talk about their mental health concerns. Yet it is essential that parents understand the stresses their teens face. Prompting open and honest conversations now will help you build skills that will support your child for years to come. Your teen may be defensive or fearful of opening up. Still, if you approach with sincere love and concern, you can encourage productive, healthy dialogue.
We sat down and spoke with Families for Depression Awareness Advisory Board member Mary Fristad, Ph.D., ABPP, Director of Academic Affairs and Research Development at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Big Lots Behavioral Health Services in Columbus, Ohio. She shared these tips for navigating a healthy and open dialogue with your teen about their mental health.
1. Find Shared Activities
Talking isn’t the only form of communication. Teens will be more likely to express and share their emotions and worries over an activity they enjoy. Find an activity that both you and your teen like to do, whether it’s cooking together, playing Scrabble, or walking the dog. Keep your expectations low and relax into the activity. Sometimes just sharing a positive experience is enough.
2. Use What Works for Them
How does your teen prefer to communicate? If your son only texts with his friends, start there. If your daughter likes journaling, create a shared journal where you write notes back and forth. Fristad also encourages parents to try less “eyeball to eyeball contact.” If you notice your teen seems uncomfortable talking face-to-face, try while in the car or sitting on the edge of their bed while the lights are out. This may feel safer to many teens than looking you in the eye.
3. Validate Their Emotions
As parents, we tend to try to solve our teen’s problems. Instead, make an effort to show your teen that you understand and empathize with what they are going through. Don’t be afraid to ask your teen about their feelings. Then reflect back on what they’ve said and validated it without rushing ahead to solutions.
4. Normalize What They’re Feeling
Everyone is struggling emotionally in some way and some more than others. It can be helpful to normalize their feelings by saying something like, “It’s been a horrible year in so many ways, how’s it been for you?” or “A lot of people are feeling depressed and anxious right now, how are you feeling?” You can also acknowledge briefly that you have concerns as well. Your teen may be more likely to talk if you go first.
5. Control Your Own Emotions
If your child comes home in an angry mood, rather than responding with equal emotional intensity, picture yourself as a container that can simply hold his or her feelings. Reflecting back with curiosity (e.g., Wow, you seem really upset, did something go wrong in your day?) offers the possibility of a fruitful conversation. If you are angry with your child, consider taking a cooling-off period for yourself before launching into a discussion of the conflict. Make sure that both you and your teen are ready to have the conversation before beginning. If your teen has had previous suicide attempts, Fristad notes that you may be wary to push into emotional territory with your child. These moments can bring up guilt, shame, anger, frustration, and many other emotions for parents. Remember to breathe—long and slow, and wait until calmer before proceeding.
“When your teen does start talking about their mental health, be sure to let them know you are happy that they are opening up to you,” counsels Fristad.
Be prepared to listen more than you talk. Remember to validate your child’s emotions to help them feel understood and build their overall emotional health.
Finally, Fristad advises, “Try to stay mindful of how important this is to your child and to your relationship with them.”
- Read tips on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of teen depression
- Watch our on-demand webinar: “Understanding Teen Depression” with Mary Fristad
How to Talk to Your Parents About Your Mental Health
A Post for Teens and Young Adults
Talking to your parents or any adult about your mental health can be challenging, uncomfortable, or even intimidating. It probably feels more natural to confide in your friends than with your parents. It can be scary opening up to your parents about feelings of depression or anxiety, partly because you don’t want to upset them.
Even though it may not be easy, having conversations with your parents or other trusted adults can help your mental health in the long run. Talking through your emotions with a trusted adult can give you more clarity about what you might be going through. You’ll likely feel less isolated. It’s also an important part of establishing a support system you can lean on when times are tough.
Families for Depression Awareness Advisory Board member Mary Fristad, Ph.D., ABPP, Director of Academic Affairs and Research Development at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Big Lots Behavioral Health Services in Columbus, Ohio, recently shared with us common concerns that teens may have about opening up to their parents, along with some tips to make talking about your emotions more manageable.
Send up a Little Flag
If you do not feel comfortable expressing all your feelings at once with your parents, start by sharing one thing. For example, you may feel overwhelmed and depressed, lonely and isolated during COVID, tired from not sleeping well, and stressed by the school. That’s a lot to tackle at once. You might take the first step by telling your parent, “I miss seeing my friends.”
Speaking up opens the door so you can work together to find options that could help. For example, you could explore with your parent how you might connect with friends in a safe way. Fristad offers, “Can we talk about options?” as a less emotionally-charged way to start these conversations. This allows you and your parent to compromise and find meaningful solutions to address a specific challenge. You can build it from there.
Communicate Honestly and Openly
“Parents tend to focus on behavior and may have a negative view of the behavior they see from their teens,” says Fristad. Slamming doors, skipping family meals, hibernating in their rooms, and so on. Adults often don’t realize what’s behind your behavior. One way to change this is to talk with your parents about the “why.” Sharing your feelings with a parent can give them insight into why you are feeling or behaving the way you are. This allows your parents to understand what’s bothering you and shift their perspective on your actions.
For example, if you just got into an argument with a friend, you might get angry and snap at your parents when they ask you about your day. Instead of reacting this way, help your parents understand what’s going on and causing you to feel and react this way. You could say something like, “I don’t really want to talk about it, but Becca and I just had a fight over text so I’m pretty upset. I just need some time by myself.”
What if My Parent Isn’t Helpful?
If you think your parents won’t be willing to help you or listen, Fristad suggests you should still try to talk to them. They may surprise you.
“Sometimes parents are not responsive because they are stressed or have a lot going on themselves,” she says. “Ask your parent when is a good time for the two of you to talk. Figure out the right environment to approach your parents with a conversation. It might be while going for a walk, driving to an appointment, or cooking dinner together.”
If you try to reach out to your parents and they won’t help, turn to another trusted adult in your circle such as a teacher, counselor at your school, leader in your spiritual community, or your favorite aunt. It’s important not to give up. You will feel better and less alone after talking with a trusted adult.
Looking to learn more?
- Families for Depression Awareness provides free mental health resources and information for families.
- Follow us on Instagram @familyawareteens
- Watch Max’s story of living with teen depression.
- Learn about depression and bipolar disorder.