If you’re like me, high school brings back memories of spending lunch chatting with close friends in the cafeteria, dancing at the prom, and attending football games. Today, our teens are talking about anxiety and depression (or worse, not talking through it), worrying about what a bully might post about them online, and, more and more frequently, attending funerals.
Just this summer, teen suicide reached an all-time high in the United States, with more than 6,000 young adults age 15 to 24 taking their lives in 2017.
After my husband, Bill, completed suicide in 2012, I made suicide prevention and mental health awareness my mission. While I endeavor to protect anyone from Bill’s fate, my work has left me increasingly concerned for teens, since so many of them lack the resources they need to work through the issues they’re facing.
That’s why it’s critical for parents, educators – and anyone who cares about teens – to be proactive when it comes to mental health and suicide. Whilst it has always been an important topic, it has never been more important today. Having awareness of the topic can help significantly help those in need, and you may even decide to take part in some mental health care training so you can effectively help your loved ones tackle any obstacle that may come their way.
Frequent, candid conversations about tough topics – from depression to bullying to peer pressure to suicide – are the most effective way to encourage your teen to come to you when he or she is struggling. Here’s what you should remember when you start that conversation.
Every parent hopes their teen will come to them when they’re struggling, but unfortunately, not every teen will. That’s why it’s critical to notice when your child is showing signs of depression or mental illness. It’s easy to chalk up behavior changes to teen angst and hormone shifts. But if you notice major changes in your teen’s sleeping, a loss of interest in activities, unpredictable mood swings, changes in eating habits, or if your teen seems to be isolating from others, it’s time to speak up.
Be frank when you talk to your teen. Kids are smart, and many will appreciate you not beating around the bush. Start with, “I noticed you’re not hanging out with your friends very much anymore,” or “You seem to be sleeping a lot more lately,” or “I can’t help but notice how thin you’ve gotten recently.”
Don’t let the comment hang between you. Follow it up immediately with, “Is everything okay?” or “Let’s talk about it.” or “How can I help?” Asking open-ended questions can help you avoid the tried-and-true teenage art of shutting you down with a one-word response.
Too often, we approach conversations with young people as if we’re educators, offering a longwinded lecture that most teens tune out within 30 seconds. Treat your child instead like a friend – asking questions and listening thoughtfully. This is the time to listen to what your child is saying – and just as importantly, what he or she isn’t.
Chances are, whatever your teen tells you is likely just the tip of the iceberg. To understand what’s lurking beneath the surface, you may need to read between the lines. For example, if your child says, “These kids have been kind of mean to me online, it’s no big deal.” or “I just don’t fit in with those girls anymore,” the issue is probably affecting your teen more than she’s letting on.
Believe it or not, getting you to “freak out” probably isn’t your teen’s favorite pastime. The best way to make your child stop communicating is to get upset or panicked when he does. As a parent, it’s normal to feel angry, worried or downright terrified when your child tells you about using drugs, having sex, experiencing bullying, or feeling depressed.
Getting emotional will only make your child feel like this issue really is insurmountable. Responding with calm, rational questions is what will help both of you get the help he or she needs.
Feeling like they can’t “fix” their child’s problems can be difficult for parents. But when it comes to some things – like depression and other mental illnesses, abuse and suicide ideation – it’s likely you can’t. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed – or treated at the very least. If your child tells you she’s struggling, it’s unlikely she’s expecting you to make it all better.
What your teen is asking for is your support. How you help your child depends on the issues he’s facing, but being willing to find professional help is critical when your teen needs it. If your teen is engaging in self-harm, reckless behaviors, abusing drugs and/or alcohol, struggling with an eating disorder, experiencing gender confusion or showing signs of depression, find help for your child immediately. A trained professional will evaluate the situation and help you both take the steps necessary for treatment.
Kristi Hugstad is the author of Beneath the Surface: A Teen’s Guide to Reaching Out when You or Your Friend Is in Crisis. A certified grief recovery specialist, Kristi frequently speaks at high schools. Visit her online at thegriefgirl.com.