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Tips for Talking to Kids and Teens About Mental Health

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to share some insights on the importance of having open communication about mental health and how to approach these conversations as a family, or with any young person in your life, in a compassionate, supportive, and non-judgmental way.

Even though mental health struggles are common, many can feel alone in their experience. And unfortunately, youth’s mental health has only been getting worse over time. According to Mental Health America, “Not only is the number of youth searching for mental health help increasing but throughout the COVID-19 pandemic youth ages 11-17 have been more likely than any other age group to score for moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression.” So, having open, honest, compassionate conversations is more important than ever.

The idea of starting the conversation can feel intimidating or overwhelming, but that is completely normal. And the stigma attached to mental health can also deter you from talking about it, but we want to share some ways you can help young people in your life feel safe and supported.

First things first. How does stigma play a role?

Although Generation Z and youth, in general, are more open than previous generations with their mental health, particularly with their peers, the stigma and barriers to seeking support still exist. Some are hesitant to bring up their concerns with parents or caregivers because they aren’t sure how they’ll react, they don’t want to worry them or be a burden, or they’re worried they’ll be “labeled.  Some kids worry about being stereotyped as lazy or lacking in motivation when in reality they could be suffering from clinical depression.

That’s why creating a home environment where emotions are discussed openly and without shame within your family or with any important young person in your life is critical. Acknowledging the stigma (while letting them know that it’s safe and welcome to share) can help address concerns a young person might be having. Here are nine tips to help you approach having mental health conversations with the youth in your life whether it be your own kids, neighbors, or friends.

1. Share your own feelings.

When you model that emotions are common and healthy to talk about, a young person will be more likely to feel comfortable opening up. It’s important to be in a stable place where you’re coping well before you share (sharing extreme sadness, anxiety, or anger at the moment can be overwhelming for young kids).

2. Talk together about mental health (at their level).

Sweeping mental health experiences under the rug can contribute to shame and stigma. A good way to open this door could be to talk about it as it comes up in your family, the community, or even in the news. For example, a reference to a public figure they admire, like Simone Biles, might be a good start.

3. Encourage them to open up too.

Let them know that talking about what they’re feeling, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable, is a normal and healthy part of life.

4. Understand the role of sibling dynamics.

If they have any siblings, you’ll want to be aware of the dynamics when it comes to mental health. Each young person is an individual, and we recommend being sure to see them that way.

5. Start small.

Starting with shorter conversations can be helpful when discussing difficult emotions, especially if you notice they seem agitated or uncomfortable. Try it out in a place you know they’re comfortable, so it doesn’t come off as intimidating or give off that “let’s sit down and have a talk” feeling.

6. Try calming techniques.

You can try doing breathing exercises with them before or after tough conversations, or if intense feelings come up during the conversation and they need a break. You can also encourage them to try other coping skills, like moving their body, drawing, or naming their feelings.

7. Be present.

It’s important to be fully present and patient in these conversations. Listen attentively to what they’re sharing and give them space to say and feel whatever is coming up for them.

8. Respect their boundaries.

If they don’t want to share their experience right away, be patient and respect their choice. Let them know that you’re there for them when they are ready to talk.

9. Let them know that support is always available.

It sounds obvious, but just hearing that you have their back, and that support is available to get them through it, is valuable. Let them know they have options, whether therapy, mental health coaching, or talking to trusted adults like teachers or guidance counselors. Emphasize that they’re not alone — young people everywhere are going through it.

For more resources on how to talk to kids and teens about mental health, contact Southeast Healthcare’s Behavioral Health team at (614) 225-0990.

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