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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » Strategies for Parents to Connect with Their Teens about Mental Health

Strategies for Parents to Connect with Their Teens about Mental Health

During adolescence, mental health can often be overlooked or misunderstood unless it’s causing severe and obvious problems. The statistics paint a poignant picture: according to the NHS, 1 in 6 young people in England (aged 5 to 16) experienced a mental health problem in 2020. This was 1 in 9 in 2017. Also in 2020, 31% of 16- to 24-year-olds reported depression or anxiety, a rise of 5% from five years previously. 

Sadly, secondary schools are struggling to meet young people’s needs when it comes to mental health. With more and more pressures added to school life, societal pressures and the challenges of growing up in a digital age, it can be an unbearable time for many teenagers. 

Recognising the Need for Conversation

When it comes to addressing the nuances of mental health with our teens, open communication is vital. Here’s why parents must be proactive in discussing mental health:

  • To destigmatise mental health: By initiating conversations about mental health early on, parents can help to destigmatise mental health conditions and experiences. When these topics are a regular part of family discourse, it normalises seeking help. It also creates an environment where there is acceptance and understanding.
  • To build trust and support: Adolescence is the time when teens begin navigating a range of different challenges. From academic pressures to social dynamics and developing freedom, it’s a tough time. Engaging in conversations about mental health means parents show their teens that they’re a safe and supportive resource. This creates trust and means they’ll come to you for guidance when they’re struggling.
  • To help with early intervention: Mental health problems in adolescence have long-lasting effects if they’re left unaddressed. By discussing mental health, parents can identify early signs of problems and intervene before they escalate. Early intervention can significantly improve outcomes and prevent crises down the road.

Common signs and symptoms

Adolescence is inherently tumultuous. It can be hard for parents to know what is typical teenage behaviour and what warrants further attention as a potential mental health issue. Here are some red flags parents should look out for:

Changes in mood or behaviour

Sudden or drastic changes in mood (like prolonged irritability, sadness or anger) can be indicative of underlying mental health concerns. Similarly, significant changes in behaviour like withdrawal from social activities or sudden declines in academic performance, may be a sign that something’s not right. 

Physical symptoms

Physical complaints like frequent headaches, stomach aches or unexplained aches and pains can sometimes be manifestations of anxiety or depression. It’s worth considering this if there are no other medical causes for the symptoms.

Sleep disturbances

Disruptions in sleep patterns, including insomnia or oversleeping, can be linked to struggles with mental health. Your teen’s sleep habits can offer valuable insights into their emotional well-being. 

Substance use

Experimenting with drugs or alcohol can sometimes be a sign that a teen is attempting to self-medicate underlying mental health issues.

Expressions of hopelessness or despair

Verbal expressions of despair, hopelessness or thoughts of self-harm should never be dismissed lightly. Take these statements seriously and seek immediate professional help.

teenager-drinking-alcohol

Creating a Safe and Non-Judgemental Environment

Home needs to be a sanctuary for teens. Parents have the power to shape this environment so that their teens feel safe and supported. It’s easier said than done, however. Here are some ways in which parents and carers can create a secure home environment where their teens can open up about their mental health:

Encourage open communication

Encourage regular conversations about mental well-being and emotions. Letting children and teens know that it’s okay to talk about feelings—even difficult ones—is important. Create space for discussions where everyone can share their thoughts and concerns without interruptions.

Practise active listening

Truly listening—without interruptions or distractions—is vital. Active listening means giving your full attention, maintaining eye contact and validating their feelings. Avoid the temptation to interject with advice or solutions; sometimes, all they need is a compassionate ear. 

Good active listening phrases include:

  • I hear what you’re saying
  • It sounds like you’re feeling [emotion]
  • Tell me more about that
  • That must’ve been really difficult for you
  • Thank you for sharing that with me
  • It’s ok to feel [emotion]

Validate their feelings

Acknowledge their experiences without judgement. Let them know that it’s normal to feel a range of emotions and that their feelings are valid, even if you may not fully understand them. Avoid minimising or dismissing their concerns, as this can undermine their trust and willingness to open up.

Lead by example

Model healthy coping mechanisms and communication skills in your own behaviour. Demonstrate vulnerability by sharing your own experiences with stress or difficult emotions and show your teen that it’s okay to seek help when needed.

Create a safe space

Designate a physical space within your home where your teen feels comfortable and safe expressing themselves. Whether it’s a cosy corner in the living room or their bedroom, having a designated space can provide a sense of security and privacy for open conversations.

Avoid criticism and judgement

Refrain from criticising or passing judgement on your teen’s thoughts or feelings, even if they may seem irrational or trivial to you. Criticism can shut down communication and erode trust, making it less likely for your teen to confide in you in the future. Instead, offer empathy, validation and support.

Seek professional help when needed

Recognise when your teen may need professional support and guidance. Be proactive in seeking help from mental health professionals if your teen is experiencing persistent or severe symptoms of distress. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness—communicate this to them.

Initiate Open Dialogue

It can be difficult to know where to begin. You might want to facilitate open communication but don’t know how to go about it. Here are some practical strategies for initiating these important conversations:

Ask open-ended questions and practise active listening

Begin by asking open-ended questions that invite them to share their thoughts and feelings. Avoid yes/no questions, as they can limit the conversation. Instead, ask questions like, “How are you feeling lately?” or “What’s been on your mind?”

Give your full attention to your teen and validate their experiences. Reflect back on what you hear to ensure understanding and resist the urge to interject with advice. Let them know that you’re there to listen and support them.

Normalise mental health

Create a culture of acceptance by normalising conversations about mental health. Use everyday opportunities, such as discussing a character in a book or movie who experiences anxiety, to broach the topic in a non-threatening way. This helps reduce stigma and encourages your teen to feel comfortable discussing their own experiences.

It may also be a good opportunity to share your own experiences with stress, anxiety or depression in an age-appropriate manner. This can help your teen feel less alone and more comfortable opening up about their struggles. Be honest and authentic in sharing and emphasise that seeking help is a sign of strength.

Use relatable examples to illustrate concepts related to mental health. For example, you might say, “I noticed you’ve been feeling stressed about exams. It’s normal to feel anxious about important tests, but there are healthy ways to cope with that stress, like taking breaks and practising relaxation techniques”.

Respect their boundaries

Respect your teen’s boundaries and be mindful of their comfort level when discussing sensitive topics. If they seem hesitant to talk, don’t force the conversation. Instead, let them know that you’re available whenever they’re ready to talk and continue to create opportunities for open dialogue.

Building trust takes time, so be patient and persistent in your efforts to initiate open dialogues about mental health. Even if your teen doesn’t open up right away, continue to demonstrate your support and willingness to listen.

Father-listening-to-his-son

Educating Yourself about Mental Health

Educating yourself about the prevalence and manifestations of mental health issues among teenagers is crucial. By familiarising yourself with common challenges like anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm, you’ll be better equipped to recognise warning signs and provide appropriate support.

Knowledge is a powerful tool in breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health. By educating yourself, you can challenge misconceptions. You can also become effective advocates for your teen’s mental health needs. Whether navigating school systems, seeking professional help or advocating for policy changes, informed parents play a vital role in ensuring that teens receive the support and resources they deserve.

Fortunately, there are numerous resources available to help parents educate themselves about teen mental health. 

Books

  • Be Happy Be You: The Teenage Guide to Boost Happiness and Resilience by Penny Alexander and Becky Goddard-Hill
  • Be Resilient: How to Build a Strong Teenage Mind for Tough Times by Nicola Morgan
  • My Intense Emotions Handbook: Manage your Emotions and Connect Better with Others by Sue Knowles, Bridie Gallagher, Hannah Bromley, Emmeline Pidgen and Kim Golding.
  • The Mental Health and Wellbeing Workout for Teens: Skills and Exercises for ACT and CBT for Healthy Thinking by Paula Nagel and Gary Bainbridge
  • My Anxiety Handbook: Getting Back on Track by Sue Knowles, Bridie Gallagher, Phoebe McEwen and Emmeline Pidgen
  • Adolescent Depression: A Guide for Parents by Francis Mark Mondimore and Patrick Kely
  • Parenting a Teen Who Has Intense Emotions: DBT Skills to Help Your Teen Navigate Emotional and Behavioural Challenges by Pat Harvey and Britt H. Rathbone.

Websites

Parenting workshops and webinars

Destigmatising Mental Health

Unfortunately, stigma is still a barrier that prevents many people from seeking the help and support they need. Parents can help break down this barrier. They can be powerful role models for their teens and help shape their attitudes and beliefs about mental health. By openly discussing mental health and demonstrating compassion and empathy towards those who struggle, parents can model acceptance and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Knowledge is a potent antidote to stigma. Debunk myths and misconceptions and gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of mental health. This way, you can challenge stereotypes and promote empathy and understanding.

Sharing personal stories or experiences related to mental health can be a powerful way to destigmatise the issue too. Whether it’s discussing your own struggles or sharing stories of resilience and recovery, personal narratives can humanise mental health challenges and demonstrate that they can affect anyone, regardless of background or circumstance.

It might also be useful to get involved in advocacy efforts aimed at reducing stigma and improving mental health services in your community. Whether it’s supporting local mental health initiatives, participating in awareness campaigns or advocating for policy changes, your voice and actions can make a difference in destigmatising mental health—for your own child and others.

How to normalise conversations about mental health

Regularly discussing mental health as a family can help normalise the topic. Whether it’s sharing coping strategies for stress or discussing the importance of self-care, these conversations demonstrate that mental health is an integral part of overall well-being.

When a family member seeks professional help for mental health concerns, openly discussing this decision can help normalise the idea of seeking support. By framing it as a proactive step towards self-care and well-being, you help reduce shame and encourage others to seek help when needed.

Pay attention to how mental health is portrayed in the media and use it as an opportunity to start conversations with your teen. Whether it’s a TV show, movie or news article, discussing portrayals of mental health can help challenge stereotypes and promote understanding.

Seeking Professional Help When Needed

There may come a time when professional support becomes essential. Recognising when a teenager may require professional mental health support is a crucial step in safeguarding their well-being. Persistent symptoms of distress, such as overwhelming anxiety, persistent sadness or thoughts of self-harm, may indicate underlying mental health issues that require intervention. Trust your instincts as a parent and seek help if you’re concerned about your teen’s mental health.

Here are some steps you may need to take:

  • Start a conversation: Approach the topic of professional mental health support with sensitivity and compassion. Let your teen know that seeking help is a brave and proactive step towards feeling better.
  • Consult with your teen: Involve your teen in the decision-making process by discussing their preferences and comfort level regarding seeking medical help and support. Offer reassurance and support and address any concerns or reservations they may have.
  • Seek help: Contact your GP in the first instance. They may refer your teen to CAMHS or direct you to other support services.
  • Look for other support services: Waiting lists for CAMHS are incredibly long. It may be useful to look at what else is available. There may be a school counsellor, for instance.
Mother-and-daughter-at-GP-appointment

Self-Care for Parents

Prioritising self-care isn’t just a luxury—it’s a necessity. Here’s why taking care of your own mental health is essential for supporting your teen, along with strategies to nurture your well-being:

Importance of self-care

As parents, you serve as role models for your teens, shaping their attitudes and behaviours. By prioritising your own self-care, you demonstrate the importance of mental well-being and set a positive example for your teen to follow.

Nurturing your own mental health equips you with the emotional resilience and resources needed to support your teen through life’s challenges. When you prioritise self-care, you’re better equipped to navigate the complexities of parenting with patience, empathy and understanding.

Self-care strategies

  • Ensure you’re meeting your basic needs for sleep, nutrition and exercise. Establishing healthy routines can provide a solid foundation for managing stress and maintaining well-being.
  • Learn to recognise and respect your own limits. Set boundaries around work, social commitments and other responsibilities to prevent burnout and prioritise self-care.
  • Incorporate mindfulness practices into your daily routine, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises or mindful walking. These practices can help you stay grounded and present in the moment, reducing stress and enhancing resilience.
  • Make time for activities that bring you joy and fulfilment, whether it’s spending time outdoors, pursuing a hobby or connecting with loved ones. Investing in your own happiness strengthens your emotional well-being and replenishes your reserves.
  • Don’t hesitate to reach out for support when you need it. Whether it’s confiding in a trusted friend, attending a support group or seeking professional counselling, recognising when you need help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.



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