Written by Tiiu Lutter, Director of Development at Child Guidance and Family Therapist at Thriving Families Center.
How do we talk to our teenage children? And how do we talk to them about mental health? And if we think they aren’t doing well, emotionally, what should we look for and how do we talk to them about it? Especially when they are shutting us out? It’s a difficult thing - but it’s not impossible, and it’s SO important to maintain connection during harder times. Teenagers like independence and want their privacy, however, they still need us - and they are still kids inside. During adolescence, the brain is developing and growing in major ways. It’s the biggest time of brain development after toddlerhood. That’s a lot of work and emotions! If you can think back and remember how much your children changed and grew as toddlers, that’s a similar process to what is happening during the teen years but over a longer period of time.
So, what do we want to look for? While yes, you want to give them independence and increased responsibility, it’s important not to allow them to overly isolate. If your teen is spending 4-6 hours in their bedroom every day, this is something to pay attention to and a time to do more outreach to them. If you see a sudden change in behavior, this is always something to pay attention to. Shifts in behavior are often signs of mental health struggles
The other big thing to look for is anger. Think back to when you were a teenager; parents were super irritating, right? No one could push your buttons like a parent. So there’s some natural irritation and anger, but there’s also an anger that sparks instantly, seemingly for no reason, and is irrational that is directly tied to depression - especially in boys. A lot of times when you see a kid who is really angry, they’re actually very sad inside.
So what do you do? Every teenager needs attention and communication from their caregivers. Research shows that parents are the number one influence in terms of drug use, risky behaviors, and making positive choices. Yes, even more than peers! While kids prefer their peers, parents messaging carry a little more weight.
As parents, we have tow primary jobs. The one that most caregivers are really good at is teaching skills. Learn how to study, chew with your mouth closed, put your shoes by the door, pick up your dirty towel. The other job is in teaching emotional skills and this is a little trickier. It’s our job to teach our children how to fail, how to have a heartbreak, how to have a crush on someone, how to deal with sadness, how to deal with anxiety, how to deal with insecurity, how to learn to explore their whole emotional depth and wellness. It’s easy to et caught up in skill-teaching and the mess that comes with adolescence and forget the importance of modeling and transferring emotional skills.
How do we teach emotional skills? The number one thing you can do is to be curious. And more importantly, be curious when you’re not having a teaching moment. If you’re having a conversation about feelings, don’t use that as the time to check in on how their math test was and did they do their homework and did they remember to sign up for sports? Sit in that space and ask them questions. What do you think about this? Do you have thoughts about the news? How do you feel about your new teacher? How do you feel about this TikTok or music? Then, validate where they are coming from. We don’t have to agree with their opinions in order to validate their emotions. Emotions are always true and real. It’s what we do with them that we get to choose. When your kid is really angry or up in arms about something that you don’t see the same way, think about this as information for you. You can ask curious questions: what about this is upsetting? I see that this really is painful right now and I love you. It’s not your job to show them their feelings are wrong, but to hold space for them through the emotional process.
Now, this is particularly hard to do if your kids are feeling depressed or when they are isolated in their bedrooms and don’t want to talk to you. In these moments, try to ask them softer, trickier questions. Do you want this or that? Offer simple options, just like we did when they were little. Know that when our children are feeling sad and depressed and they are isolated and angry, what they are feeling inside is worthlessness and insecurity. They feel they are unloveable as well as being unloved. They are not able to absorb the positive thing that we know about them. In these moments, we have the opportunity to always be providing a little constant flow of positive emotional reinforcement - and not about performance, but about who they really are. Things like: You mean so much to me. I love that purple is still your favorite color. Your braid looks awesome today. Find any little thing and reflect back to them. In doing so, you let them know that you love them. This shows them that it doesn’t matter if they’re not feeling well. These are things that bring joy to your life, yes, even when things are hard. Even then, they bring value.
Then ask them, how can I help? When a kid is feeling really sad and sitting by themselves, sometimes just going and sitting with them so they know they are not alone is the best thing you can do. They can then see that their people, their caregivers, who they have counted on their whole lives, are not abandoning them. This can be especially important if your child is feeling isolated from their friends, school, classes, and even from themselves. When you are depressed, you feel like an alien even to yourself. So knowing that there is a person who still loves you no matter what and just for who you are is really powerful.
Now, what if your teenagers start talking about suicide, even in passing? When your kids say things like, I wish I was dead or I'm going to kill myself or highly dramatic related statements, don’t back away from them. Take them seriously. Now, you don’t necessarily need to run to the hospital, but when children talk about depression or suicide, even in passing, this is a sign that these thoughts are bubbling up into their heads. A lot of times, a parents’ natural initial response will be “ Don't ever say that”! Or “You’re ridiculous!” Then, a child who may have been sending you out a flag of desperation will feel shamed and shut down. When you hear those messages, take a breath and turn to curiosity. “Wow, you feel like killing yourself? Do you really wish that you were dead?” or “How long have you felt this way?” And always offer them help, “If you are feeling like you might want to hurt yourself, that would be the worst thing. We would miss you so much. Let’s get you some help.” While yes, it could be that your teen is being dramatic, but that drama is not coming from a place of joy. It’s coming from a place of pain. As their parent, we want to find out what that pain is about and help them figure out how to manage it, live with it, or alleviate it. And we can do with curiosity and empathy.
No matter what they (or you) are going through, always let your children know you love them. Always let your children know that they have value. Always let your children know that this is temporary. These stages (middle school, high school, etc.) are temporary and you WILL get past whatever this hardship is. The pain of adolescence is intense and real (if we reflect back on ourselves, we can probably remember feeling it in ourselves!) but it is also temporary. Validate for your children, yes, your feelings are real. Yes, you can get through it. And yes, I am here to help you. To help you find something you are passionate about. To help you pass the time until you feel better. To help you get professional hello. To take you to the hospital, if that’s what you need. Remember the data. You are important. Your opinion matters. Our children still need our love all the days of our lives and especially when they are teenagers and feeling unlovable to themselves. Give yourself compassion and lead with curiosity. You’re doing a great job.