Talking to your teen about mental health and suicide
By: Taylor French, LPC
In December of 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory to highlight the mental health crisis in children and adolescents. This comes as suicide rates continue to increase in young people and currently stands as the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 through 24 according to the CDC. Therefore, it is as important as ever to have conversations with teens about their mental health and seek support for your child when they are struggling. These conversations, while important, can be difficult to navigate for parents. Below are tips for facilitating these valuable conversations with your teen.
1. Validate: To provide validation means to recognize or affirm someone or their feelings. This is an important skill to use when having conversations about mental health with your child. It is common for parents to feel that their teen’s stresses, such as friend drama, is silly and invalidate their concerns. However, thinking back to when you were a teen and remembering that these issues were important to you may help parents empathize more with their child. It is encouraged to listen to your child without expressing any judgement and respond in ways that acknowledge their concerns and feelings. For example, rather than telling your child “Don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal in the long run” a more validating response would be to highlight the emotion they are expressing such as “I can tell this is really worrying you.”
2. Resist the urge to offer solutions: When you hear someone struggling, especially your child, it is normal to want to fix the problem rather than continue listening. Keep in mind that you cannot fix feelings or all of your teen’s problems. Offering quick fixes often shuts down dialogue or prevents your teen from sharing in the future to avoid what they may perceive as a lecture. Focus on listening to show understanding versus listening to fix the problem.
3. Ask open-ended questions/prompts: So, you may be thinking, “If I shouldn’t give solutions, what do I do?” For parents talking to their teen about mental health, it can be helpful to ask open-ended questions or follow their lead in the conversation rather than giving advice. Questions help you to gather more information about how your child is feeling. Examples may include “How long have you been feeling this way?” “How can I help?” “How did that make you feel?” “How have you been feeling lately?” Using prompts to keep the conversation going may include “I want to understand what this is like for you, please tell me more about that” or “I am here to support you, let us figure out how to get you through this.” By using these skills, you are encouraging your teen to share more so you can listen and helping them feel more comfortable by showing that you are interested in understanding them better.
4. Keep your cool: These conversations can be difficult as a parent, but it is important to stay calm during these conversations so that the discussion remains productive and future discussions are more likely to happen. It may be helpful to prepare for the conversation when possible to make sure that you are in the right headspace to have a productive conversation. In addition, keep your emotions in check during the conversation even when it does become scary or uncomfortable. One may convey this by talking calming about your concerns without raising your voice or becoming distraught. It is also important not to attack, blame, or talk in an accusatory tone. When parents become overwhelmed they sometimes make statements such as “Don’t think this way” or “You shouldn’t feel this way,” especially when suicide is brought up. However, this often comes off as critical or makes a child feel they did something wrong by telling you, which can shut down communication and prevent your child from getting help.
5. When in doubt, seek professional support: If you are seeing signs of mental health concerns in your child or are concerned about suicide, it is important to get your child mental health support to prevent any worsening mental health concerns and to keep your child safe. Counseling provides additional support to your child by using evidence-based methods of treatment. If you are concerned about suicide, do not hesitate to ask your child directly if they have thought about ending their life. Research has shown that asking about suicide does not “plant the seed” but allows parents to get their child lifesaving treatment if their child is suicidal.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Alliance on Mental Illness
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention