As I have written before, the mental health crisis for children and teens is growing way too fast. Believe it or not, 1 in 5 children struggle with mental health issues. Before we take another step, we need to face the reality of these numbers, and start the difficult conversations about mental health with our kids. All we want for our kids is a happy and productive life. Let’s help them achieve that goal.
It is not an easy task to have meaningful conversations with our teenage kids. Their hormones are raging, and they are working really hard to become adults. Even a teenager going through typical teenage “stuff,” may not be open to intimate conversations with a parent. (What? Me? Talk to my parents?) Teenagers think that anyone over the age of 18 is too old to understand any of their problems or the essence of their teenage journey. Add in a serious problem, and the conversation is even harder to start. So, what we adults need to create is a safe environment where sharing is the norm in the relationship, not the exception. Start by asking simple, non-intrusive questions about school, about friends, about new clothing styles, etc. You are simply looking to have a conversation, not judge the answers. And be sure to leave the “door” open. Let your kids know that there is never anything too silly, too awful, too embarrassing for them to ask or tell. Let them know you will always be available for them. You may not like their information, but you will always love them. And, in addition, be sure to share back a bit.
So, how do you begin a difficult conversation with your child? First, choose a time that will be calm and allow both parties to pay attention. It could be dinner time, bedtime, a walk in the park, or while doing a project together. If you suggest a conversation, and your child gives you some push-back, let your child know that you want this conversation because you care about them and want to hear about the ins and outs of their lives. But also let your child know that you are happy to have them choose a time that will feel more comfortable to them. Choosing the time and place may help your child feel a bit more in control of their situation. Once the time and place are determined, be sure to listen carefully to their words and validate any feelings that may be expressed by your child. Validation is critical. Let them know that you understand how they could have the feelings they are expressing. You might even share your own similar experiences and how they were handled. Sharing in return will help your child understand that problems and emotions are normal and can be resolved.
Now that you have developed an ongoing environment of communication and sharing with your child, be direct if you suspect any mental health issues. Start the conversation with something like, “I have noticed that you seem sad recently.” OR “I have noticed that you’re not spending as much time with friends recently.” OR “I have noticed that you are not getting your work done on time for school.”
Listen. Listen. Listen to their answers. And if you suspect for any reason that there might be an issue with suicidal ideation, be direct and ask your child if he/she is thinking about harming him/herself or about suicide. According to all that I have read, the professionals write that you should not be afraid that you will be giving your child the idea of suicide. It is more important to ask the question and bring the topic out into the light. If the answer is yes or even non-committal, immediately contact a health care professional.
Now that you have the tools, start the conversation!
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Institute on Mental Health