Talking To Your Child About Mental Health

Mental Health / Family Health

Getting teenagers to talk openly about what's bothering them can be hard. Follow these tips to help get them talking to you about their worries.

Do not judge your teenager

Start by assuming they have a good reason for doing what they do. Show them you respect their intelligence and are curious about the choices they've made.

If you do not pre-judge their behaviour as "stupid" or "wrong", they're more likely to open up and explain why their actions made sense to them.

Try not to assume you know what's wrong

Do not assume that you know what's wrong. Rather than asking "Are you being bullied?", try saying "I've been worried about you. You do not seem your usual self, and I wondered what's going on with you at the moment? Is there anything I can help with?".

Be clear you want to help

If you suspect your child is using drugs or drinking excessively, be gentle but direct. Ask them, and let them know that you'll help them through any of their difficulties.

Be honest yourself

Teenagers will criticise you if you do not follow your own advice. If you drink too much alcohol yourself, for example, they're likely to mention it ("You cannot talk!"). Make sure you're acting responsibly yourself.

Help your teenager think for themselves

Instead of trying to be the expert on your teenager's life, try to help them think for themselves:

  • Discuss the potential implications of poor behaviour choices. For example, "How does smoking weed make you feel the next day? So, if you feel like that, how's that going to affect you playing football?"
  • Help them think critically about what they see and hear. "So Paul said X: is that what you think?"
  • Help them feel that they can deal with life's challenges. Remind them of what they're good at and what you like about them. This will give them confidence in other areas of their lives.
  • Information is empowering. Point them towards websites that can give them information on drugs, sex and smoking so they can read the facts and make up their own minds.
  • Help them think of ways they can respond and cope. "So, when you feel like that, is there anything you can do to make yourself feel better?"
  • Encourage them to think through the pros and cons of their behaviour.

Pick your battles with your teenager

If they only ever hear nagging from you, they'll stop listening. Overlooking minor issues, such as the clothes they wear, may mean you're still talking to each other when you need to negotiate – or stand firm – with them on bigger issues, such as drugs and sex.

Try not to react to angry outbursts

Teenagers often hit out at the people they most love and trust, not because they hate you, but because they feel confused.

Do not think that they mean the bad things they say ("I hate you!"). They may just feel confused, angry, upset, lost or hormonal, and they do not know how to express it.

Help your teenager feel safe

Teenagers often worry that telling an adult will just make things worse. You need to be clear that you want to help them and will not do anything they do not want you to.

This may be particularly important with bullying. If your child opens up to you about bullying, explain that it is unacceptable. Listen to their fears and reassure them it's not their fault.

Help build up their confidence by reassuring them that you'll face the problem together.

Ask your teenager the right questions

Sometimes you'll find out more about your teenager if you ask open questions. If they have an eating disorder, for example, asking confrontational questions like "What did you eat for lunch?" or "Have you made yourself sick?" may mean you get a dishonest answer.

Sticking to open questions such as "How are you?" or "How has your day been?" helps your teenager talk to you about how they're feeling.

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Mental Health Helplines & Web Chats

Samaritans
Action Mental Health
Association for Post-Natal Illness Helpline
Aware NI - Support Groups
Aware NI - Online Support Groups
Mind - Side by Side Online Community