Talking to your teenager (or a teenager you know) about, well, anything, can be difficult.
When it comes to sensitive issues like mental health, getting a conversation started can be even harder. But the reality is that more than 22 percent of people between the ages of 13-18 will experience a mental health or substance use challenge every year, so making sure that we keep an open dialogue with teens about these issues is critical.
Here are 5 tips for having a productive conversation about mental health or substance use with teens:
Be genuine. Teens can see right through an adult who is “faking it.” If you’re feeling uncomfortable in a discussion with a young person, admit it. Say something like, “This is hard for me to talk about, so I totally understand if it’s difficult for you too.”
Be careful about using slang. You might think you’re “hip” and “with it,” but trying to use slang that you don’t normally use just to “connect” with a teen is a bad strategy—they’ll be able to tell immediately. Stick with language you’re comfortable using.
Allow for silence. Just like anyone, teens may struggle at times to express what they want to say. Interrupting a silent moment may prevent someone from having enough time to formulate their thoughts—be patient.
Switch up the setting. Where you have a conversation about mental health or substance use could make you or the teen you’re talking to more comfortable. Maybe taking him/her/them out to dinner will help open up conversation. Some adults find it easier to talk to a young person while doing another activity, like driving in the car, washing dishes or walking the dog. Sometimes talking during an activity that requires little eye contact can make the conversation more comfortable. Figure out what works best for everyone.
Don’t trivialize their feelings. Good advice for any conversation. Mental health challenges can occur at any age. Wondering what a young person has to be depressed or anxious about implies that their life experiences and emotions are less valid just because of their age.
The more normal we make conversations about mental health and substance use, the easier having these conversations will get. And we know that one conversation can be pivotal when it comes to getting a young person facing a mental health or substance use challenge the help they may need.