Oak Knoll School Blog

How to Talk to Your Child about Mental Health

Posted by Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney, Ph.D. on Apr 22, 2019 11:00:00 AM

As parents and educators, we seek to put our teen’s behaviors, emotions and difficulties into mutually exclusive categories that we can readily understand and, by extension, start the processing of fixing. This assuages our own anxieties about being ineffective in our children’s lives and, replaces that inner parental angst with controllable variables in the form of actionable items and measurable gains. If your teen comes home expressing that nothing in math class is making sense, parents may act in the straightforward response of contacting the teacher or enlisting the help of a tutor, should one not already exist. This is an “easy one” as parenting goes, in that the direction is clear and there is a reasonable expectation that this intervention will fix or at least mitigate the problem.

How to Talk to Your Child about Mental Health-2

Consider the very different and potentially more obscure conversation of your teen saying to you, sometimes out of the blue, that they just don’t feel like themselves or they dislike their body type, or they are unhappy, they are losing interest in things that they used to love, or struggling with inordinate amounts of anxiety. These are statements that could be indicative of the presence of mental illness, but not necessarily. They key thing to focus on here is the amazing opportunity that you have been given because your child has chosen to share something with you that they could have just as readily internalized. Despite the immediate response of needing to fix the situation as expeditiously and comprehensively as you can, your reaction is key in terms of sustaining that momentum and keeping the lines of communication open with your teen who has started the process of asking for help.

Open Dialogue

There are so many things that could be going on with your teen that you have the opportunity to normalize for them by sharing your own experiences and continuing to engage in an open dialogue, regardless of whether or not you feel you are at the ready with the best solution possible, which you can also feel free to admit to your child. As parents, we must be cautious about subscribing to myths surrounding discussions of teen mental illness that all developmentally typical emotional reactions are either diagnosable or evidence of a lasting problem. In the case of anxiety, for example, increased levels of attention paid to an increased demand is a natural state of energy and one that will typically yield a successful outcome. If your teen comes to you with self-diagnosed panic attacks, you can ask for more information and discuss whatever the trigger was. Remind them that anxiety is exacerbated by a perceived lack of control and when you enter an assessment or a big game, a concert, etc., you are not necessarily sure how things will turn out. Remind them that the control that they seek is not always realistically over the outcomes of their endeavors, but there are elements within their control, such as effort, attitude and perseverance. You can share an anxiety provoking experience in your personal or professional life that again, normalizes the situation for them rather than sending the message that they have a diagnosable condition that will require medication or therapy or both.     

An under-reactive or minimizing approach is not desirable either, but a balance between the two is a parental goal. In the case of anxiety, you can try and discern if the feelings of increased panic that this teen is feeling is situational (such as in a certain class) or seems to be more across the board, (all classes, social interactions, etc.). Whether you do feel it is situational or a more pervasive presence of these symptoms, you can discuss the possibility of seeing a therapist to help you and your child figure out exactly what is going on. Neither the parent, nor the teen, needs to figure this out without assistance and again, there is a distinct opportunity there to normalize the situation for them and demonstrate that asking for help from an objective person will only help us gain visibility on what the issue is and what the best way is to handle it. Diagnostic jargon and immediate answers may elude us but reassuring your teen that your openness and support, albeit not the immediate “correct” response is a reliable and constant source of perspective in their lives is firmly within our parental capacities.

Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney, Ph.D. is the Upper School psychologist at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child in Summit, New Jersey.

Topics: high school, elementary school, parenting, middle school, wellness, building confidence, mental health

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