Talking to youngsters about mental health
One in eight children has a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to the charity Young Minds, while one in six young people aged 16-24 has symptoms of a common mental disorder such as depression or anxiety.
It’s not always easy to know how to start a conversation with a child or teenager you suspect might be having difficulties with anxiety or depression. The important thing is that you do try to start the conversation if you’re concerned, and find out about the thoughts and feelings they’re having. They might broach the subject first – in which case do make time to listen, as it won’t have been easy for them to bring it up.
You may not be the best person for them to talk to, and that’s okay. Your role might be to help find the right person, who could be a teacher or counsellor at school, a family member (if you’re not related), or a GP. You could also signpost them to helplines and websites; we’ve shared some ideas below. Remember that it’s not up to you to ‘solve’ anything – even if it’s your own child.
Recognise the signs The signs that a child or teenager is experiencing mental health problems can be quite subtle; they might still be going to school and doing their usual activities. Things to look out for include spending all day in bed at the weekend, weight changes, communicating less, withdrawing from friends, or changed eating and sleeping patterns. You may have specific concerns – for example, that they’re self-harming.
If you suspect a young person might be really unwell, or you’re worried they’re at risk of harm, their GP should be the first point of call. They will be able to advise on treatment or connect the child or teenager with specialist young peoples’ support services, which will vary depending on their age and the area they live in.
Open the conversation “Pick the right time to talk, when it’s calm and quiet and neither of you needs to rush off to do something else,” advises psychological therapist Joanne Adams. “Choose the best way to talk, too. This could be face to face, or they might find it easier to call, email or message you. Be aware that they might not yet be ready to accept or discuss their problems, so be patient, it may take a few ‘goes’ to get them to open up.”
Ask open questions Rather than asking questions which will simply lead to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, phrase them in a way that gets the young person talking freely.
Don’t make assumptions – you may have an idea what the problem is, but avoid asking leading questions. Open questions often work best, For example, instead of asking ‘Does it feel like this?’ you could ask ‘Can you describe to me what that feels like?’.
Validate how they’re feeling It can be distressing, especially as a parent, to see a child experiencing difficult emotions and to want to protect them from that. It’s important to acknowledge and let them feel whatever they feel, without judgment. Let them know it’s ok to be angry, sad, anxious or scared, for example, and that it’s part of being human. Try not to say things like ‘Don’t be silly!’ or ‘That’s not true!’, which might make them defensive or clam up. Instead, you could say something like: ‘I can understand, I’m hearing what you’re saying. It’s ok to feel like that. I would like it if you didn’t feel like that. Would you?’.
“Normalising their emotions might help,” suggests Joanne Adams. “Tell them that while the exact way they feel is unique to them, lots of people experience the same thing and they’re not on their own. They may have certain concerns about how they’re feeling. Try to make it clear that it isn’t a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem will continue as they get older.”
Addressing unhealthy behaviours If a young person is behaving in a way that may be having an impact on their mental health – such as drinking too much alcohol, for example – you could try helping them to understand and acknowledge the consequences of this. Ask questions like: ‘Have you noticed how you feel the next day?’ ‘Would you like that to change?’ and ‘What are the pros and cons of behaving differently?’.
“It’s possible that you might be struggling with the same difficulties, or behaving in a similar way, to the person you’re helping,” says Joanne Adams. “If this is the case, acknowledge it! If appropriate, share your experiences. You could say, ‘I know I drink too much sometimes, and I always wish I hadn’t the next day’.”
Look after yourself It’s a good idea to be prepared that what you hear could possibly shock you, or lead to feelings of guilt or worry that you’ve contributed to the problem if you’re a parent. Try not to take what your child says personally; focus on them in the moment, but do make time to discuss this with someone else later on if you’re struggling.
We know that being worried about others can affect your own mental health. Ieso offers online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to adults which you can access here.
The NHS has some good advice on talking to your teenager.
The Mix provides a free confidential telephone helpline and online service that aims to find young people the best help, whatever the problem. You can:
- call 0808 808 4994 for free – lines are open from 11am to 11pm every day
- access the online community
- email The Mix
Kooth is a free, safe and anonymous online mental wellbeing community, accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. It includes a magazine, discussion boards, messages or live chat with their team, and a daily journal to fill in.