Author: Lauren Griffith, LMHC
, North Kids Director
Talking to your child or teen about mental health can seem overwhelming or daunting. You’re not alone. And your desire to learn more and explore information to help support you in talking to your child is so significant!
While no two children, parents, and parent-child relationships are the same, some strategies can help navigate these difficult conversations. You are not alone --- and neither is your child.
Here are a few helpful tips on how you can effectively support and care for your child:
Be observant. Notice what you’re seeing your child. Be mindful of sudden changes in their moods, behaviors, and activities. When you see changes in your child’s life, gently and compassionately ask them with genuine curiosity.
Present as neutral instead of reactive. As a mom of toddlers, I know that my children are so receptive and responsive to my emotions and responses – which often dictates how they respond. Have you ever seen a child fall and look immediately at their parent/caregiver, assessing their response so that they know how to respond? The same principle remains true as they progress into elementary, middle, and high school. We also know this is easier said than done. As much as possible, when your child comes to you with a thought, question, or to share about their experiences, provide a calm, non-anxious, or assuming presence. In other words – don’t freak out! A shocked, surprised reaction can often be perceived as a judgment or make the child and teen feel worse about the situation. Strong reactions that lead to advice or punishment can easily shut down future communication. A calm, unassuming, and compassionate presence can go a long way in helping our children feel safe, seen, and valued.
Ask curious, gentle questions. Anytime you genuinely seek to understand a child's experiences, you show them dignity, respect, and honor. Asking open-ended questions like, “Can you share more about this?”; “What was that like for you?”; or “Teach me more about this” can open your child to sharing more. Asking leading questions or closed-ended questions like yes or no questions can be perceived as judgmental or prescribing what they should have done or felt. Asking open-ended questions oftentimes helps your child receive your care and compassion for them, trusting that their thoughts, opinions, and experiences are valuable.
Ask what they think. While it is so natural for us to give advice and answer the questions they have, what might it look like for us to ask for their opinion first? If your child asks a specific question, we could respond by saying, “That’s a great question! I wonder what you think.” Honoring our children’s creativity and problem-solving ability lets them know that you value their thoughts and opinions.
Use “why” questions with caution. I don’t know about you, but when someone asks me why I feel a certain way, I don’t always know why! Why do you feel overwhelmed --- “I don’t know.” It’s not just our children and teens – it’s all of us. Knowing the why behind our feelings or actions takes time to process and understand the why. Additionally, asking “why” questions assume your child knows or that they should know which can be unhelpful or shaming. When your child is experiencing strong emotions, listen first and lovingly talk about the events that lead to their emotion or response. Even asking if they know why they feel the way they are may lead to more conversation and connection. Maybe their response is no – and that’s okay.
Affirm and validate ALL emotions. God created humans to feel a wide range of emotions. There are no “negative” or “bad” emotions. They just are. Emotions give us more information about how we are experiencing relationships, events, seasons, etc. Let your child know that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling, it’s not wrong to feel their feelings, and they are not alone in feeling this way. Honoring their feeling may open the door to them sharing more with you and letting you into their experiences.
Be honest and remain humble. You don’t need to be a perfect parent. None of us are! Kids don’t always need you to have the right answers. There is great power in being authentic in your parenting by saying to them something like, “I may not know how to best support you with what you’re experiencing, but I’m here, and I want to walk through this with you. Can you tell me when things are helpful and when they are not?” Don’t forget that you’re human too. Knowing that you’re there and in this with them is so powerful.