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Tackling tough conversations with teens

Parents often wonder how to start difficult conversations with their kids, especially during the teen years. Here are a few ideas for approaching your child when you have concerns about their mental health. 

  • Keep it curious. A short, open-ended question, like “I’ve noticed you’re not playing basketball with your friends much lately. What’s up with that?” is non-judgmental and gives your child space to respond with more than a “yes” or “no.” 

  • Stay calm. It’s easy to blurt out a knee-jerk response if your child shares something unexpected or concerning with you. Remember, it takes a lot of courage for them to tell you something that they’re afraid might upset you. Try to listen and be a neutral sounding board so they feel safe talking with you without fear of getting in trouble. 

  • Use reflective listening. Reflective listening is when you ask questions and repeat back what is said, such as “I hear you saying you felt uncomfortable when you were at the party and some kids were drinking alcohol, is that right?” When your child feels heard, it helps build trust and promotes deeper understanding. 

  • Answer questions if you can. Kids’ questions can catch you off guard, because they tend to pop up when you least expect them. Answer what they asked (no need to go into great detail every time!) If you don’t know an answer, it’s OK to say, “I need to think about that. Can we talk later? 

  • Praise your child for talking about a hard topic. You can say things like “I know it’s tough to tell me about how down and depressed you’ve been lately. Thanks for sharing with me.” This can make it easier to return to the conversation in the future. 

  • Be an advocate. If you’re going to see a doctor or therapist about mental health, invite your child to lead the conversation (if appropriate), but be ready to provide background information and support during the visit. 

If you and your child need help with tough conversations, reach out to a mental health professional for assistance. 

For more information, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics website