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Tips for Engaging in Conversation with Your Teen

When in doubt, reach out. School counselors are a great place to start.

  • Make observations: In a non-judgemental way, let your child know what you have noticed:
    • “Hey, I have been noticing ___________. Is there anything going on that you want to talk about? I know life can be difficult sometimes and I am here for you”.
  • Listen. Really listening means stopping the voice in your own head and trying to actively pay attention. 
    • **Listen to understand, not to solve the problem. Teens often just want to share and not be told how to fix it.
  • Ask if they’ve thought about what they might need to get better. If they haven’t, offer to support them by listening and talking with them. If they have, support them in following through with their needs.
    • What do you need from me right now? 
      • To listen
      • Advice
      • Step in as an adult
  • Normalize. Assure your child that having a mental health issue is common and does not mean that they can’t get better. 
  • Acknowledge your fear or concerns, but don’t let it rule your behaviors. 
  • Offer counseling. Assure your child that it is their time.

Prepare to be an advocate.  Finding the right mental health treatment is like finding the right medical provider.  It takes time and effort to make sure you’re getting the best care you need.

Avoid the following!

  • Minimizing how they are feeling or telling them, “you shouldn’t think that way.” 
    • It’s quite difficult to bring up this conversation. Remember that they probably worried over it for some time before coming to you.
  • Letting your emotions rule your response – especially if you’re angry. Negative words (“You’re never gonna get it together, are you?”) can have a big impact. 
    •  It’s not uncommon for parents to feel guilt and blame themselves
    • Don’t tell your child what they SHOULD do; instead, ask what they want you to help them with.
  • Argue when you encounter resistance from your child. Go back to listening, asking open ended questions, and just repeating what they’ve said.
  • Compare your child to their siblings.  
  • Using half an ear
    • Avoid using “uh-huh” and “hmm” as responses. They can be taken in a way that suggests you aren’t listening. Adolescents already feel that they lack a voice and they go unheard. Reflect what they say back to them and ask open ended follow up questions.

Signs and symptoms that there may be a mental health concern that requires attentions:

  • Often feels anxious or worried
  • Has frequent stomach aches or headaches with no physical explanation 
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of interest in activities/hobbies they used to enjoy
  • Fear of gaining weight; exercises, diets obsessively
  • Has low or no energy
  • Harms themselves, such as engaging in cutting
  • Engages in risky, destructive behaviors
  • Smokes, drinks, or uses drugs
  • Irritability or restlessness 
  • Intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Has thoughts of suicide
  • Avoids spending time or engaging with friends (either in person or online)
  • Has trouble doing well in school or is showing a decline in grades.

Ways to start a conversation with someone you are concerned about:

Your kids may not be ready to talk to you. That’s ok! They do need to know that you are present and available. Remind them that you are there. Make observations and statements and just let it be. They will come when they are ready. 

  • “I have been feeling concerned about you lately.”
  • “Recently, I have noticed some differences in you and wondered how you are doing.”
  • “I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed like yourself lately.”

Questions you can ask:

  • “When did you begin feeling like this?”
  • “Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?
  • “How can I best support you right now?”

What to do when your child shares information about another child?

The safety of our children is most important. It can feel overwhelming to be the keeper of information and at the same time feel bad about breaking the trust of a teen who just shared something difficult with you. It can be hard to break your child’s trust when they share information about a friend with you in confidence. Your child may panic and feel like they are going to lose their friend for breaking their trust. It can feel confusing and uneasy.

Ask yourself a few questions to determine if you should reach out to the other family. 

  • Is the child in immediate danger? If so, you must reach out for help. 
  • If another parent knew this information about my child, would I want them to reach out to me?
  • Is breaking this child’s trust necessary in order to ensure safety?

As counselors, we always inform a child that we have to share any information regarding their safety and give them autonomy in how they want the information to be shared. Talk to the kids about the need to share and give them choice in how to do so.

If you can’t make a decision or don’t feel like you can determine what is best, call the school counselor for support.

Worried you or someone you care about is having thoughts about suicide?  

Know you are not alone and there are lots of resources.