The Internet – specifically social media – has contributed to a major spike in teen mental health issues. While there’s no definitive evidence to suggest a direct correlation between using social media and developing anxiety or depression, it’s widely documented that modern media and technology can exacerbate underlying mental health issues in vulnerable young people. Click here for more information on how social media can impact mental health.
While mental health is different from mental illness, it’s important to have a conversation about mental health before it becomes an illness. There are so many instances in a child’s early life and upbringing where their parents teach them preventative health measures, such as washing their hands to prevent the spread of germs, wearing a jumper when it’s cold, and not sharing drink bottles with other children. As children get older, these lessons naturally broaden to cover healthy lifestyle practices. While mental illnesses cannot be contracted in the same way as the common cold, that’s no reason not to have a conversation with your teen about ways to take care of their mental health.
When it comes to choosing how to talk about mental health and wellbeing with your teen, there will be a range of different considerations to navigate. Among other things, you’ll need to decide when the right time is to broach the conversation, which words you will use and which solutions to offer; if any.
Tips On How To Talk About Mental Health & Wellbeing With Your Teen
Mental health can be a difficult subject to broach with young people. Not only does mental health have a social stigma attached to it, but it can also be very challenging to define, see and comprehend – especially for young people. It can also be difficult to gauge the extent of a mental health problem, as it doesn’t manifest the same way a physical illness would. If you’re not sure how to talk about mental health and wellbeing with your teen, the following considerations might be useful:
1. Timing Is Everything
Choosing the right moment to have a conversation about mental health is important. Try not to engage your child in a conversation about mental wellbeing when you have strict time constraints or cannot commit wholly to the conversation at hand without being regularly disrupted. A neutral environment can be beneficial, perhaps go for a bush walk, or start up a conversation in the car when there’s no pressure to maintain eye contact? Mood is also important, as it can impact your child’s willingness to engage with you .
2. Don’t Label The Process
Try to start the conversation as naturally as possible. Perhaps by taking advantage of a teachable moment (e.g. shortly after watching a movie which deals with mental health issues) or by asking a leading question. If you announce that you want to have a conversation about mental health you risk creating tension and making your child feel uneasy and defensive. Try to make the encounter seem as natural as possible.
3. Never Dismiss Their Feelings
Most of us can recall how turbulent adolescence is. Young people are at a stage in life where they are physically and mentally developing, navigating new relational problems, figuring out their place in the world, and all while at the mercy of hormones. As an adult, it is easy to forget how hard childhood can be at times. The things which trouble our children can sometimes seem trivial when compared to the stresses of adulthood, but it’s important to remember that everything is relative.
In order to help children to gain a wider perspective, it is sometimes necessary to remind them to consider their own life in comparison to others who aren’t so fortunate. This is why we often remind young people of starving children when they complain about a meal they’ve been served. Yet it’s also important to remember that our problems won’t simply go away because “life could be worse”. If your child confides in you about something which is causing them to feel upset, angry, anxious, depressed or helpless, then the first thing you should do is validate their feelings.
4. Resist The Urge To Problem Solve
It’s completely understandable that when someone confides in you about something that is bothering them, your first instinct is to suggest ways to resolve the problem. While this is a sign that you’re listening and that you care, it’s also important to recognise the times when someone simply needs to vent, have their frustrations heard and their feelings validated. Sometimes, listening can be more powerful than talking. And besides, more often than not, if a person wants your advice on how to resolve a situation, they will ask for it.
That being said, age and circumstance is an important variable in this instance. As a parent, it’s your responsibility to teach your child how to navigate life’s obstacles, whether they’re personal, relational or academic. When they’re young, this might entail some hands on intervention or active involvement, whereas, as they get older, you may want to take a step back and oversee the situation instead of actively trying to resolve it.
Relational problems can be particularly tricky. Children are notorious for having short lived feuds with their friends at school, which makes it difficult to determine whether a disagreement warrants parental intervention. Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut instructions for when it’s best to simply listen and when it’s best to get involved, so if you ever have any doubts you should simply talk them through with your child. Better yet, ask them if they’ve thought about what they might need to get/feel/make the situation better. If they’re not sure, make some recommendations.
5. Don’t Be Afraid Of Silence
Summoning the courage to speak openly about problems related to mental health can be challenging for anyone to do. If you start a conversation with someone you’re worried about and they seem reluctant to speak openly, just try to be patient with them. Remember, while adolescent children have a tendency to be defensive and dismissive, it doesn’t mean they’re not listening or that your advice won’t sink in.
How To Talk About Mental Health & Wellbeing: References & Additional Resources
Mental Health America, 2018. Talking To Adolescents and Teens: Starting The Conversation.
Karen Young, 2016. Talking to Your Teen About Mental Health and Depression.
Danielle Poole, 2017. 5 Tips for Talking to Your Teenager About Mental Health.
Desiree Patton, 2017. How to Use Media to Start a Parent-Teen Conversation About Mental Health. Psych Central.