Today’s young people live in a complicated world and face many challenges. While the topic of mental health has become less taboo over the years, it remains a public health crisis rivalling other issues such as cancer and diabetes.
This issue is real and directly affects teens. Many teens are reluctant to go to their parents if facing mental health issues despite their parents and caregivers being a critical source of support.
- In a poll with young people contacting Kids Help Phone, half said they would turn to a friend if facing mental health problems, with mom a distant second at 30%. 20% would not share their pain with anyone.
- Although many parents acknowledge the importance of mental health, few are taking the most fundamental step: talking about mental health at home.
The Right By You campaign was created to improve mental health and prevent suicide among youth, by mobilizing and engaging Canadians to help drive fundamental changes that result in:
- Increased awareness and attention toward teen mental health
- Greater understanding, acceptance and support for young people living with a mental health problem or illness
- Increased access to teen mental health services, treatment and support
Through Right By You, we aim to provide parents and caregivers with practical tools and guidance to help have more impactful conversations with their teen and support their teen’s mental well-being.
Download the full Right By You: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers PDF
The Top 5 Places and Times to Talk
One of the biggest challenges parents and caregivers face with their teens is engaging them in meaningful conversation. Attempts to do so are often met with one-word replies, grunts, blank stares, restlessness, or teens just playing on their phones.
Finding the right time and place to talk to your teen are critical factors for success. While we offer some ideas, the best time and place to talk with your teen is anytime and anywhere both you and your teen are comfortable.
Here’s our list of the top five times and places to start the conversation:
1. In the car
For many parents and caregivers, driving your teen to and from school, sporting events, lessons, and friends’ houses seems like an endless task. It does, however, afford the sometimes rare occurrence of private time with your teen.
A car can be a comfortable environment since it minimizes eye contact, which some teens can find a little nerve-wracking. It also has the added benefit that when the conversation ends, the radio can be turned back up, offering an easy transition into lighter topics.
Although your teen may be playing on their phone or looking out the window, they are most likely listening to what you have to say.
Consider mealtimes an opportunity to share with and listen to your teen non-judgmentally on a variety of different topics. It’s a good time because, as we eat, our blood sugar levels begin to moderate and we’re able to stay focused and engaged throughout the conversation.
Eating together as a family has proven benefits. Studies show that participating in family dinners are linked to positive behaviours such as lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grades and self-esteem.1
The table should be a safe zone where everyone can unwind, catch up on each other’s activities, and share the positive and challenging aspects of the day. To limit distractions, you may want to consider setting some rules such as having no electronic/mobile devices, not answering phone calls or text messages or reading/working at the table.
1Dr. Anne K. Fishel, thefamilydinnerproject.org/resources/faq/
3. Spend time together
Rather than simply starting a conversation with your teen, consider talking while doing something together. It could be something simple like going for a walk, taking the dog out or throwing a ball around together in the park. It might involve attending a sports game or event together. Even better? Doing something together that your teen suggests.
Because of the developmental processes of adolescence, and particularly the way the teenage brain develops, involving teens in something active offers a greater chance of achieving higher levels of engagement.2
2 Chris Hudson, understandingteenagers.com.au/blog/go-with-the-flow-10-ways-to-easily-engage-teenagers/
4. While being entertained
Try watching a movie, YouTube video or TV show with your teen and use the situations that arise in these shows to spark a conversation and solicit their thoughts on how they would react in similar situations. Entertainment can offer a great entry into a conversation with your teen as the situations shift focus away from them and towards characters they may identify with.
Teens often enjoy talking about celebrities, music or the latest movies. Using pop culture is a great way to start a conversation, even if you know very little about the subject – it gives your teen the opportunity to fill in any gaps and bring you up to speed.
5. On their time
You never know when or where your teen will be in the mood to talk. Giving them control over when or where (and even what to talk about) is key. It may be at midnight when they get home from a night out with their friends or it may be when you’re trying to make dinner for the family. But, whenever it does strike, be sure to seize the opportunity – be available and listen actively and non-judgmentally.
Download the full Right By You: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers PDF
Ask the Right Questions
Asking the right question (like “What do you think?”) during the right moment can help spark a great conversation with your teen. It can also demonstrate your interest in them and their lives. Here are a few tips and reminders, followed by a variety of questions by topic to help you get started. Remember, every teen is different so make sure to use the questions and approaches that will work best for you and your teen.
1. Unconditional love
Whatever happens in life and in your relationship with your teen, it is critical they know you love and care about them unconditionally.
2. It’s a two-way conversation
It’s important your teen doesn’t feel like they’re being interrogated or they don’t have your trust. While asking questions is a great way to prompt conversation, you’ll get the most out of it if you also contribute to the conversation and share your own ideas, thoughts and experiences. Just make sure to avoid dominating the conversation, lecturing or providing unsolicited advice.
3. Give them control
There is value in offering your teen some control in their lives, and that applies to conversations as well. For example, have your teen decide where and when to talk. If you’re planning an activity together, ask them what they’d like to do or offer a choice of options.
4. Timing is everything
Make sure you and your teen are both comfortable and in the right frame of mind before talking. Avoid starting a conversation when either of you are upset, angry or distracted.
5. Park your emotions at the door
It can be challenging but it’s important not to let your emotions get the better of you. It’s normal to feel frustrated, but don’t take it personally. It is critical that the conversation be non-confrontational. Becoming angry or overreacting to a question or mistake can upset your teen, or worse, silence any hope of future dialogue. Instead stay calm, listen and ask open-ended questions.
6. What’s your goal?
What is the one thing you want to communicate or learn from your teen? It’s tempting to want to cover a number of topics, or for your teen to bring up something unrelated to throw you off course. Be singularly focused on the information you want to relay to (or receive from) them.
7. Stay firmly planted
Make sure you’re not perceived by your teen as needing their attention or co-operation. If this happens, it puts you as the parent or caregiver in a vulnerable position, as your teen does not need to give you what you’re looking for. And the more you seek these things, the more defiant they may become. If, for instance, your teen is screaming or being disrespectful, choose instead to walk away and not engage. Let them know you won’t engage with them until they are more respectful and civil.
8. Have lots of discussions
Your goal isn’t to deliver a lecture, but to build a rapport and trust with your teen over time. Talking with them is an ongoing process. Depending on the subject, they may only feel comfortable talking for a few minutes, and sometimes not at all. Don’t get discouraged. When it comes to important topics, teens want to hear from you and know that you care. Accept that the dialogue will unfold over time in bits and pieces.
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