A Guide to Discussing Mental Health with Teens

When it comes to talking about mental health with teenagers, many of us may feel like we’re tiptoeing through a minefield. We might be fearful that we’ll say the wrong thing, make them uncomfortable, or inadvertently reinforce stigma. Although it can be difficult, open and stigma-free conversations about mental health are crucial for the well-being of young people. Let’s discuss ways to break down those barriers and connect with teenagers about mental health in a way that feels genuine and supportive.

Breaking the Ice: Start with Empathy

Imagine that you’re a parent or teacher, and you’ve observed some changes in a teenager’s behavior—maybe they’re more withdrawn, irritable, or anxious. One way to start the conversation is to point out that you’ve noticed these things in a loving way, without judging them. Begin with empathy and let them know you care. You could try saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been going through some tough times lately, and I want you to know I’m here for you.”

Normalize the Conversation

Let’s face it; teenagers are dealing with a lot—academics, peer pressure, identity exploration—the list goes on. Use this as an opportunity to normalize the discussion. Remind them that many people struggle with their mental health, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. You might also share s tories of times when you felt stressed or overwhelmed when you were their age.

Engage in Active Listening

When they do start talking, listen actively. Put away distractions, make eye contact, and offer nods or words of encouragement. Try to avoid jumping to conclusions or offering advice right away. Sometimes, all they might need is for someone to hear them out.

Language Matters

If a teen confides in you about a sensitive matter, aim to respond with compassion rather than criticism. Be careful not to use language that condemns their feelings. Instead, ask open-ended questions like, “Can you tell me more about what you’re going through?” This invites them to share their experiences without feeling judged.

Share Resources and Stories

If you’re met with hesitation or silence, sharing resources can help. Let them know about websites, hotlines, or support groups where they can seek help or learn more about mental health. You can also share relatable stories that touch on mental health issues. Stigma-Free Society’s Student Mental Health Toolkit has Inspiring Story videos where people share their personal stories about mental health, which teens may relate to. These videos can help teens feel more hopeful, gain a better understanding of mental health, and destigmatize mental illness.

Show Unconditional Support

No matter what they share, reassure them that your love and support are unwavering. Mental health challenges are tough, and knowing they have a safety net can make all the difference.

Seek Professional Help When Needed

If you suspect a more serious issue, like depression or anxiety, consider involving a mental health professional. Explain that this step is not a punishment, but a way to ensure they get the best support possible.

Keep the Conversation Going

Talking about mental health doesn’t have to be a one-time event. Instead, you can make it an ongoing dialogue. It can be helpful to check in with them regularly, even when things seem better.

Finally, give yourself grace: talking about mental health with teenagers isn’t about having all the answers. It’s about creating a safe and open space where they feel heard and valued. It’s about letting them know that their mental health is as important as their physical health. By remaining compassionate, open, and supportive, we can make a world of difference in the lives of teens.

Resources for Educators and Parents/Guardians

If you are parent/guardian looking for resources for you and your teen, we invite you to check out our Resources for Parents, Guardians, and Caregivers. We know how difficult it can be for parents/guardians who are worried about their child’s mental health, and we created a comprehensive resource to offer guidance in supporting your child on their journey. Educators can browse our Teens Corner, which offers downloadable resources, lesson plans, activities, and more resources to aid you in supporting students’ mental health.

By: Monique Zizzo

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