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Talking to Your Parents About Your Mental Health: A Guide for Teens

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If there’s any constant in teen-parent relationships, it’s this: Talking to your parents isn’t easy. Homework problems. Tangled friendships. Pleading your case for the car keys. Anything related to dating or sex. These aren’t light and breezy conversations.

Letting your parents know you might need help with an emotional or mental health issue? That can be scary, for sure.

But it’s a talk that you and your parents really need to have. First, because you deserve to feel your best. Second, because your health and happiness matter to your parents.

“Teens experience special challenges as their brains develop. These challenges can be amplified by anxiety, depression, impulse control, and focus issues,” says Jennifer Reed, NP, a nurse practitioner who works with teens and families in Overland Park, Kansas. “It is especially important for teens to be able to communicate how they feel.”

The tricky part, of course, is that teens and parents don’t always speak the same language. It “may be difficult for teens to verbalize how they feel, which makes it more challenging for their parents to decipher,” Reed says.

There’s still some stigma attached to mental health issues, Reed admits, but “people are more open to talking about mental health problems than they were even a few years ago.”

That willingness to have a conversation may be sparked by greater awareness of the problems young Americans are grappling with. Among those six to 17 years old, 17 percent have a mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

And among those ages 18 to 25, the rate of depression rose 63 percent between 2009 and 2017, according to a report in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Having that first talk about what you’re feeling may feel overwhelming, but these steps can make opening up easier.

Step #1: Have a Chat with Yourself

Only a clinician can diagnose mental health conditions. But there are clues you can look for to help you understand how you are feeling.

Reed says it’s time to speak up to your parent or another trusted adult if:

  • You’re struggling in school
  • Your relationships with friends and others become difficult
  • You’re feeling isolated
  • You feel something within you is just not right, but you don’t know why
  • Your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are getting in the way of your daily life
  • You’re having problems sleeping or concentrating
  • Your appetite has changed
  • You’re thinking of hurting yourself

Tip for Parents

Listen if your child comes to you, but also observe how they’re doing in school and activities. If your child shows signs of mental health issues, getting help sooner is better than later.

“Poor performance in the early school years, or not meeting academic expectations or milestones, can set a child up for poor self-esteem,” Reed says. “That’s why it’s so important to intervene early—before self-esteem has been compromised.”

Another area to examine could be your child’s social media use. We now know more about the negative effects of social media on children.

Step #2: Don’t Assume You’ll Know How Mom or Dad Will Respond

Play the “if this, then that” game. That’s the one that goes something like this: If I tell Mom I’m feeling sad, then she’ll tell me it’s normal and that all I need to do is find a new friend or sleep more.

Maybe in your mind you’re certain that opening up to your parents will somehow disappoint them, make them angry, or add to their stress level. All of these concerns are common, according to the experts at Mental Health America (MHA). Many people still believe myths about mental health.

One trick that might help you get past such internal roadblocks is to ask yourself: How would I react if someone I cared about opened up to me?

Here’s some comforting news: Humans are hardwired to want to help others, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Just as you’d want to listen to and help someone you love, chances are good that your parents feel the same way. So, go into the talk with an open mind.

Tip for Parents

If you notice your child may have something on their mind but they haven’t brought it up, reassure them they can come to you about anything. Let them know you’re there—if and when they want to talk.

When your child is ready to talk, don’t judge or dismiss what they’re telling you, Reed says. Take what they’re saying seriously.

Step #3: Come Up with an Opening Line

There are no magic words to get the conversation started, Reed says. But the ones that tend to work best for many of her patients are fairly simple: I’m struggling, and I don’t know why.

From there, you can share some more details with your parents, the Child Mind Institute recommends. Here, it can be helpful to explain what you’re feeling: I don’t feel right, I feel sad, I feel angry.

If you can, give your parents any specifics that you feel comfortable sharing. For example: I have been feeling so anxious about school that I can’t do my homework and it’s hard for me to go to class.

Tip for Parents

Your instinct may be to jump in right away to get to the bottom of the problem. But one of the best things you can do is to listen without interruption, Reed says.

Step #4: Let Your Parents Know How They Can Help

Once you’ve described what you’re thinking, feeling, or experiencing, ask for the support you need: I want help dealing with the way I’m feeling.

Your parents may not know how to respond right away, or they may want to sit with this new information for a few hours. That’s OK. But if you feel like your message didn’t sink in, come back to them, and try again.

If you still feel unheard, turn to another trusted adult. Maybe it’s your aunt, uncle, grandparent, favorite teacher, school guidance counselor, or even a friend’s parent.

Just don’t give up. Your health, including your mental health, is too important.

Tip for Parents

If your child hasn’t clearly said how you can help, ask them how you can help (you can also check out tips for how to become a mental health advocate). And then follow through, Reed says.

Next Steps: What Parents Can Do

Did your child open up and share a lot of personal information with you? You should be proud—it’s a big first step on the way to healing.

Now, speaking with a therapist or psychiatrist can help you and your child work through the problem together, Reed says.

Once you find the right mental health provider for your child, a treatment plan may include individual therapy, family therapy, medication, and other approaches.

For teens, “expediting the time to feeling better is crucial for this age group,” Reed says. That’s why she feels it’s important to use the latest science to help her explain the causes of some mental health challenges to teens and their parents, as well as to help her make better medication choices for her patients.

“Being able to explain to a teen how their individual brain works is educational,” Reed says. “And it makes it easier for them to mitigate their own behavior.”

To help personalize medication plans, you may want to look into genetic testing for mental health medications. Reed, specifically, uses Genomind’s Pharmacogenetic Test. The Genomind test looks at 24 genes related to mental health treatment. It provides guidance across 10 mental health conditions and 130 medications to help your clinician determine:

  • Which medications may be more or less effective
  • Which medications may have side effects
  • How you metabolize medications for personalized dosing guidance

The Genomind test requires a prescription. Wondering if it can help your child? Learn more here or get started today.

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