Health Agenda

Mental Health

Talking to teens about mental health: Here are the questions to ask

If you’ve spotted the warning signs of mental health issues in your teen, it’s vital to chat with them about what they’re feeling. Here’s how to start the conversation.

Adolescence can be a time of enormous change for young people. Their bodies are changing, brains are maturing and it’s a period where significant mental health conditions can flare up.

As parents, it’s not always easy to know what signs to look out for, and if you do have concerns, it can be tricky to know exactly what to say to a young person and where to go if you're seeking support.

But if you spot the warning signs of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or behaviours or other mental health problems, it’s vital that you have a conversation about the issue before it escalates.

Research has shown that one in five young people experiencing psychological distress felt they didn’t have someone they could turn to in a crisis.

So, once you’ve noticed mental health red flags in your teen, how do you make sure they feel supported and what do you say to them?

What to say to your teenager when talking about mental health

Psychologist Sabina Read offers a few conversation starters that you can use to discuss mental health with your child or teen.

  • I’ve noticed you’re…[list specific behaviours like spending more time alone/sleeping more or less/teary or angry]. I’m concerned and would love to find a time to talk about it.
    “It’s important to use observable facts that are indisputable rather than judgements or opinions,” says Sabina. “Don’t give up asking if your first efforts are shut down. And when you’ve found a time to talk, make an effort to listen rather than offering advice or solutions up front.”
  • What’s the hardest thing about being you at the moment?
    “This is a very powerful question and allows your teenager to offer up their challenges without any parental assumptions,” says Sabina. “It’s a great launch question, which can lead to a more specific conversation about mental health depending on the answers they give.”
  • I’m feeling stuck and I’m not sure how to help you. I’ve been reading up on good mental health and wonder if you’ve noticed yourself feeling…[insert emotions here]? What would it be like to talk to me/your GP/school counsellor about how you’re feeling?
    This approach lets your teen know you don’t have all the answers and you feel stuck and unsure sometimes, too. “It also lets your child know there are experts and help available that they may wish to explore independently or together with you, depending on their age,” says Sabina.
  • I’ve felt depressed or anxious myself at times and noticed you might be experiencing some of the same symptoms. What would it be like to talk to me or your GP about how you’re feeling?
    This question lets your child know you’ve also struggled with mental illness or health challenges but have found ways to cope. “This can let your teen know they’re not alone and also provides hope if you’ve found ways to manage your own mental health experiences,” says Sabina. “How much of your story you share depends on your relationship with your teen, their age and the level of self-disclosure that feels right to you. However, never assume your experience is the same as your teenager’s. Everyone has their own mental health journey.”

What can help make the conversation with your teen easier?

Raising mental health issues with your teenager can be uncomfortable, but these suggestions can make it easier and help you engage with your child.

  • Pick the right time
    For some parents, the best time to talk to your child is when you’re driving or walking together, being distracted by the world around you and avoiding the need for eye contact. For others, it’s at home in your child’s bedroom. Whenever and wherever you do it, be sure you have plenty of time without interruptions. Head to Beyond Blue’s Healthy Families online resource for tips on how to start a conversation about mental health. You'll also find videos there of parents who've had these conversations already.
  • It’s okay not to know what to say
    You don’t have to be an expert in mental health to have a conversation with your teenager. Remember there’s no such thing as a perfect parent; you just have to be yourself and start the conversation.
  • Be okay with silence
    You don’t have to have all the answers, nor should you have to do all the talking. Teenagers need their parents to listen to their concerns openly and without judgement.

What to do if you’re still worried about your teen

If you’re concerned about your teen or a family member, there are plenty of resources and support available. You can seek professional help from your child’s school counsellor, your GP or paediatrician, a mental health service or a psychologist.

If you live in a remote area, Psych2U offers offers bulk-billed Telehealth (video conferencing) services with psychologists or psychiatrists. A GP referral or mental health care plan will be required. 

The HCF Navigating Parenthood – Talking to Teens podcast is also full of useful, practical advice from experts, and teens themselves sharing insights about what’s going on in their lives and offering suggestions about how parents can engage with them. 

There are also expert resources that you can access:

If you or your child is feeling depressed or anxious and need to talk to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Lindy Alexander
First published February 2020

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