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COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR TEENAGER & HOW TO TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

         

Are you concerned about your young person and not sure what to say? Do you worry that you might make things worse? Want to help them but not sure how?

Last week at Woodleigh we acknowledged RUOK? Day, which highlights the message that “It all starts with a conversation.”

    

Your teenager is going through massive changes – they’re figuring out who they are, what they stand for, who they love, and what they want out of life. Their hopes and dreams might be very different to what you’d imagined for them.

Part of helping your young person develop into an independent adult is respecting their choices – providing support and guidance, but also space for them to work things out for themselves. This means the way you communicate together also has to change – and this shift is often just as hard for parents and guardians as it is for young people.

Even if you aren't sure quite what to say, the important thing is that you say something. Let them know that you are concerned and why. By starting a conversation and showing your concern and willingness to support them, you’re giving your young person an opportunity to share what they're going through. This can make all the difference. 

"Try not to take it personally if your child or young person doesn’t want to talk to you about what’s going on – but don’t give up."

Your interest shows them that you’re willing to talk about their mental health – or any problems or difficulties they’re going through – whenever they’re ready. 

Tips for getting started

Let your young person know you’re concerned and want to help. Create an environment where they can open up, and make sure you give them space to talk. You could try saying:

  • “I’m really worried about you. Can we talk?”
  • “I’ve been noticing that you are (sad/distant/not yourself). I am really concerned. Can we talk about what’s been bothering you?"
  • “You haven’t been acting like yourself lately. Let’s talk about what’s going on.”

Top tips for communicating with your teen

  1. Make talking part of your routine. Make time to chat with your teenager about their day and what they’ve been doing. Try to start conversations with them at times when they appear most open to chatting. If your young person wants to share something, give them your full attention and listen without judgement.
  2. Be a good listener. As a general rule of thumb, listen twice as much as you speak. Let them give their perspective before jumping in with advice.
  3. Ask open, curious questions … not loaded ones. This gives your young person confidence that any issues are theirs to solve. Being judgmental – either in what you’re saying or your tone – is one of the quickest ways to shut down a conversation and get your teen on the defensive. Examples of open questions might be “What were you hoping would happen?” “How do you feel about what did happen?” “What ideas do you have for what to do next?” ”What can we take from this for next time?”
  4. Let your young person talk about whatever interests them. Show respect for their opinions, even if you disagree with them.
  5. Show affection. Your teenager might threaten to dissolve in a puddle of embarrassment every time you show affection, especially in public. But it’s important to keep showing affection and telling your teens you love them and how much they mean to you – even if it’s met with a monosyllabic grunt.
  6. Reinforce that you’re there for them whenever they need it and that they can talk to you about anything, even difficult issues.
  7. Respect their privacy. Have sensitive discussions in a quiet space; ask if there’s a good time to talk; don’t barge into their room uninvited. 

When things get tough

Relationships between parents, guardians or carers and young people can become strained at times. Conflict and tension can develop, and open lines of communication may be broken. It’s also quite common for young people to avoid parents or guardians when things get difficult, closing loved ones off from their life and problems.

Your young person may not always want to turn to you for help, but it’s important not to give up and keep reinforcing that you’re there for them.

  • Be persistent. Continue to try and talk to your young person to find out what’s bothering them.
  • Reinforce the message that you care. Let your young person know that you’re concerned and are there to help.
  • Be understanding – even if you don’t agree or even quite comprehend where they’re coming from. This will help your young person feel validated.
  • Try to connect with your young person in the best way you can. This might mean involving other family members or friends who can help.
  • Change it up – if you feel you’re not getting anywhere, try a different approach. If you’re hard, try softer. If you’re soft, try to be more firm.
  • Give your young person hope that there are solutions to their problems.

When a young person shares their feelings...

  • be an attentive listener – sit in a relaxed position and use appropriate eye contact.
  • ask open-ended questions to try and get them talking rather than asking questions with yes/no answers that won’t really tell you how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking.
  • acknowledge their feelings – try not to minimise or down-play how a young person may be feeling.
  • don’t jump in immediately and give advice – be calm and let them do the talking. Ask questions, but try not to bombard them!
  • try to keep your reactions in check – if your young person gets a judgmental, critical, shocked or angry response from you, they’ll be much less likely to come to you with issues in the future.
  • remind your young person that they’re not alone – let them know that you’re there to support and help in any and every way that you can.
  • if you’re not sure what to say, it can help to do a little research - read up on anxiety, depression and suicide. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to help. Don’t suggest that they just “cheer up” or “pull themselves together”.
  • if they don’t feel like talking, try writing a note or sending a supportive message via text or Facebook.
  • help your young person improve their confidence by acknowledging and building on the things they do well.
  • be respectful of their privacy – make sure your young person is comfortable with you telling others about their experiences, whether they are family, friends or teachers etc.
  • Talk with them about what information can be shared and what they would prefer to remain private.

Providing reassurance

If your young person is experiencing anxiety or depression, it will probably affect the way they think about things. They’re more likely to approach situations negatively, believing nothing much can change or that things are hopeless. Being anxious and worried can also get in the way of finding solutions. If the young person feels this way, they may need: 

  • encouragement to explore options for what they can do next.
  • reassurance that things will be OK.
  • to focus on small steps and achievements.

Seeking support

Let your young person know that support and treatment is available, and that you can work through the options together. Encourage them to make contact with myself or someone from the counselling team, any trusted staff member, and/or getting them to talk to a GP about what’s going on is a good first step. You could offer to make an appointment and go along if they want.   

Become part of your young person’s ongoing support system. Take time over the school holidays to check in with them to see how they’re doing and to remind them that you care.

Yours in kindness,

Donna Nairn
Director of Counselling


Additional resources:

If you or anyone you know needs help: