How to talk to your kids about their mental health
Twenty percent of youths live with a mental health condition, which means, difficult as the conversation may be sometimes to broach, there is no household in this country that can afford not to have it. If it isn’t your kids who are facing mental health challenges, then it’s one of their close friends, it’s the people they will love someday, and we need to teach them now how to prioritize their own mental wellness, and how they can be there for their peers in times of need.
We were so fortunate to have a chance to talk to a few of the teen youth-line listeners volunteering on peer crisis lines across the country, which struggling teens can call to talk about their lives and all the challenges therein. These listeners manning the peer lines are at the forefront of the mental wellness crisis facing the nation’s youth. They were generous enough to give us their time to discuss the amazing work they’re doing and to tell us how parents can really be there to support their kids through mental health challenges. The key, they said, is to create an open, supportive environment before it’s urgently needed. Mental health can be a difficult conversation to initiate even in easy times, and even more difficult to initiate when a child is already struggling, fearful, and confused. Read on for the listeners' suggestions on how to create this environment before it’s needed.
1. Always treat emotions seriously
Each of the youth line listeners told us that, to begin, it is crucially important that parents treat their children’s emotions with great thoughtfulness and care. Often times, teens call into the lines feeling as though their parents don’t understand their mental health needs and challenges. What is most harmful to a kid or teen’s wellbeing is when parents seem uninterested in learning. One listener told us, in the moment, it shouldn’t matter if you understand the problem or if you can identify with the child. It should be about really listening to what they’re saying. A parent’s role isn’t to diagnose their child, it’s to be willing to believe them when they say that something is wrong when they don’t know what’s going on inside their heads and bodies.
When parents treat their kids' feelings with seriousness and compassion in easier times, kids know that they can rely on that same compassion when they need it most, no guessing involved.
2. Be available
It’s important to model openness and availability before the need is urgent, the youth line listeners told us. And it’s no herculean effort required to build that open environment. It’s all the little things that add up. For instance, try to make family meals a regular occurrence (and leave the TV off!). Or, instead of spending time in the home office or bedroom behind closed doors, try reading on the living room sofa, where you’re easily accessible. If kids don’t feel as though their parents are free to talk about the easy things, they are even less likely to expect their parents to be free for the more difficult, confusing discussions.
3. Check-in routinely
One listener told us, if an open, communicative environment isn’t well-established beforehand, It is unlikely that a teen is going to go to their parent when they are in need. The easiest way to establish this ongoing channel of communication is to ask questions regularly. To avoid the impenetrable one or two-word answers (e.g. Oh fine, pretty well, same old) ask specific questions. What was the best part of the day? What was the worst part? And ask questions that push them to see their worth, like, What’s your best subject so far this term?
4. Listen to understand
Parents don’t need to know everything about mental health! One youth line listener told us, It is important for parents to realize that they do not need to have answers for everything and that just listening can sometimes be enough. What’s important is that parents demonstrate to their children a willingness and desire to understand, and a readiness to help however possible.
5. Learn how your kids communicate love
We all communicate in our own ways. A common phrase for these different modes of verbalizing care and affection you may have heard referred to as Love Languages. Some of us prefer physical comforting a hug, a touch on the shoulder. Some of us prefer kind words of reassurance and affirmation. It is important to know how your loved ones are most comfortable receiving love, and how they are most comfortable giving love so that you can speak love in their language.
6. Know the resources
Parents should feel comfortable talking about the many mental health solutions available, like psychiatry, substance misuse treatments, counseling, and of course your local peer crisis lines. The first step in getting comfortable is to get educated. Parents can look into resources within their community and be familiar with what their health plan offers for specific issues, one listener suggested.
Parents don't need to have all the answers, they only need to be there, be attentive, and to be ready to have the conversation when the time comes.
We want to know how you try to be there for your children, or how your parents have been there for you. Tell us what’s worked in your experience! Share your stories online using the hashtags #BeWell and #BeThere.