When you want to help your teen – to try to find out what is affecting their mood or behaviour – then you’re going to have to talk to them. Talking to teens isn’t always easy, and talking to people about their mental health isn’t easy, so talking to teens about their mental health is right in the middle of the difficulty Venn diagram.
It can be easier if you follow these guidelines
1 – Remember you’re talking to a teenager. Their brains aren’t wired the same way or as developed as yours. Remember what life was like for you then, and the very different weight and importance that you gave to things then compared to now.
2 – Move from the specific to the general, never the other way round. Talk about a specific behaviour and start the conversation there – for instance “I’ve noticed that you’re not eating as much at family meals, and that you’re saying you feel sick a lot”. Being specific also means not using phrases like ‘never’ or ‘all the time’.
3 – Keep it a question and not a judgement. For instance, “I’ve noticed that you’re not eating as much at family meals, and that you’re saying you feel sick a lot. I’m wondering if everything’s okay, or if something’s troubling you?” is much more open than “And skipping food and meals is a stupid thing to do”. It’s not even the word ‘stupid’ that’s the real problem with that sentence – it’s the fact that you’ll be talking about your judgement of the situation, not the situation itself.
4 – Keep the question open. In the above example “I’m wondering if everything’s okay…” keeps the conversation able to go in any direction. In contrast “I think you might be starting with anorexia” pushes the conversation in one direction – and then it will be about your assumption, not about the actual situation. Avoiding assumptions also means you’ll avoid making accusations, which will just be seen as confrontational instead of meant to help your teen.
5 – Keep calm, especially when they can’t. When you’re trying to help your teen they may come up against frustrations with emotions they can’t express or behaviours they can’t easily explain. If and when they lash out don’t escalate the situation by biting back. This is exactly when you need to deliberately increase your calm. If things do get too heated then signal a break in the conversation, and return to it later.
6 – Let them know you’re supporting them, and that they’re safe. You may remember when the idea of telling an adult a problem could only make things worse. You need to reassure them that you won’t be judging them, or imposing your solution on the situation.
7 – Help them develop their own answers. Help your teen to develop their critical thinking skills. For instance what are the consequences of some of their choices, or how far do their friends’ expectations actually match their own thoughts or values? Helping them to form their own opinions means resisting the need to have the last word as well – let them reflect on the conversation, and not just the last thing you said.
If you found this blog post about the pitfalls of conversations when you’re trying to help your teen useful then why not sign up for my monthly newsletter here with three stories every month on the quirky side of psychology and relationships