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Mental Health Literacy: A Convo Guide for Parents

Finding ways to help their child is every parent’s top priority – but mental health topics can be difficult conversation starters. How do you approach a teen’s recent behavior without shutting them down? How can you safely lead the conversation in the direction of help and understanding without seeming overbearing, condescending, or controlling? In what ways can an understanding of mental health literacy assist parents lead such conversations?

Picking the Right Time

The first step, in every case, is to pick the right time. Teens are naturally emotional, regardless of temperament or personality. There’s a lot going on during adolescence, and it can be difficult to unpack it all. Picking the right time to address your worries can help defuse a potentially difficult situation. That means waiting for a good day, avoiding ambushes, and maybe finding an opportunity to talk to your teen in private (in their room, while doing chores together at home, on the ride back from school, etc.).

Once you’ve found the right time, it’s important to pick the right conversation opener. Fumbling your opportunity to discuss your concerns can keep your kid on guard for the rest of the week or longer. No matter how conflicted you might feel, remember to focus on what’s important: your goal is to help your teen, not judge them.

Starting the Conversation

To start things off, research goes a long way. Learning about mental health issues on your own time, understanding mental health literacy, and speaking with mental health professionals can give you a better understanding of what your teen might be going through, and differentiate between regular teenage problems and the signs of a more serious mental health issue.

Approach the Topic Naturally and with Observations

If you feel that your teen is going through something they need help with, approaching the topic naturally is important. Begin with observations. Obviously, you’ve noticed something. Bring up what you’ve noticed, and why it concerns you. Then, listen.

Some teens might feel relieved that their parents picked up on what’s going on. Others might be worried that they’re being judged or alienated from the rest of the family. It’s important to make sure your teen understands that your concern for them comes from a place of love and inclusion, and that they’re free to say what’s truly on their mind.

Don’t be Afraid to Say Something

If you’ve done prior research, don’t be afraid to bring it up. You don’t need to help confirm your teen’s self-diagnosis or make a judgment call of your own – diagnostic work is best left to experienced psychiatrists. But showing that you’ve moved on from concern to action might help your teen realize that you’re invested in helping them, and want to understand how they feel. It can be comforting to know that you’re open-minded and on their side.

Learning to Listen

There are important dos and don’ts to keep the conversation going once your teen is open to discussing how they feel with you. These include:

  • DO give your teen the time to finish their sentences, and don’t interrupt or stop them.
  • DO normalize how they feel, letting them know that you’ve read about many other teens feeling the same way and that there are ways to get help.
  • DO keep their information confidential – if your teen has only told you, don’t go on discussing it with other members of the family without first bringing it up with your teen, let alone a mental health professional (unless their situation and behavior are life-threatening).
  • DO acknowledge your own fear and anxieties in these situations. It doesn’t help to bottle your feelings up because you’re scared of affecting your teen.
  • DO continue to learn about what your teen is going through, even after they’ve started therapy (especially after they’ve started therapy!).
  • DON’T minimize how they feel or tell them that they “shouldn’t feel this way”, or that you “know exactly” how they feel without having previously been diagnosed with the same condition and the same circumstances.
  • DON’T feed excuses or blame other people. It’s always tempting to find something to blame, but no case of a mental disorder can be squarely blamed on a single factor. It’s almost always a convalescence of complex internal and external factors, melding together in an unfortunate way. Instead of directing your anger at something, use it to help your teen get better.
  • DON’T compare your teen to their siblings or ask them why they couldn’t have been more like your other kids.

Mental Health Literacy: Recognizing Mental Health Issues

Teen temperament can feel disjointed or confusing, so it’s important to separate “normal” teen behavior from potential red flags for a mental health issue. Some things to keep in mind include:

Is it Consistent?

Consistency is important. If your teen’s mood has been consistently low for several weeks now, chances are it’s more than just a rough patch for them. Conditions like depression can affect the way we perceive things around us, actively inhibiting the ability to feel joy or pleasure.

If your teen hasn’t talked about their favorite hobbies in weeks, hasn’t hung out with friends in a while, and generally hasn’t laughed or been in a good mood for a noticeable period, they may be going through more than just a period of grief.

Has Academic Performance Changed?

Academic performance may be a helpful metric but shouldn’t be the absolute focus here. How well your teen is retaining information and focusing on their studies can be affected by the onset and growth of a mental health issue, but there are dozens of other factors that can affect a teen’s grades without necessarily affecting their mental health.

Furthermore, while your teen’s grades might be important to you (and them!), focusing on them might make your teen feel that your priorities are misplaced (i.e., putting their grades above the way they feel).

Nervous vs. Anxious

Nervousness is one thing, especially if your teen has been rather skittish since early childhood. But anxiety symptoms are something else. If your teen seems constantly worried about the same things, is having trouble concentrating or focusing on anything, easily loses their cool, and struggles to perform under pressure – whether it’s during a driving lesson or a breakdown during school exams – they may be overly sensitive to their surrounding stressors, or worse.

Anxiety disorders are the most common kind of mental health issue worldwide, ranging from complex disorders like OCD to a generalized feeling of worry and dread that affects a person’s mood, personality, and behavior on a daily basis.

Susceptibility to Addictive Behavior and Long-Term Substance Abuse

Teens are smart, often smarter than we might give them credit for. But they still make mistakes, lack experience, and are usually more short-sighted than adults through no fault of their own. This is part of the reason why teens are more susceptible to addictive behavior, and why early onset of addiction usually predicts long-term or life-long substance abuse.

If you suspect that your teen is struggling due to an ongoing substance problem – whether it’s frequent drinking binges with friends or sharing prescription pills at school – keep an eye out for some of the more obvious signs, including hidden stashes, physical symptoms (bloodshot eyes, constantly tired, slurred speech, frequent hangovers), and mental symptoms (irritability, memory problems, altered behavior, becoming defensive).

Issues with Eating

Eating disorders also disproportionately affect adolescents and are some of the most dangerous mental health disorders we know of. Signs of an eating disorder include constant cycles of self-deprecation and shame, followed by binge eating, signs of binge eating such as wrappers and hidden stashes of food, frequent bathroom breaks between and during meals, diuretic or laxative drugs, and calluses on the index knuckle from induced vomiting.

When Is Professional Help Needed?

In general, the moment you no longer know how to help your teen is the moment you should consider approaching a mental health professional for help – even if it isn’t to schedule an appointment for your child or figure out an intervention. Mental health professionals also work to assist parents in understanding what might be going on in their teen’s lives, and helping them navigate their way around a conversation with their child.

If your teen approaches you about therapy, then they’ve thought it over and likely made the decision to seek help – with your assistance. Work with them to find a mental health professional they are comfortable with. First and foremost, their comfort is paramount. Trust is an important aspect of therapy, and teens will be unlikely to get the help they need if they cannot set up a strong bond with their therapist.

If your teen is struggling with a mental health issue, reach out to Visions Treatment Centers. Let’s start the conversation together.

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