by Mary Albertoli
The teen years are a critical time in your child’s development. Adolescents and young adults are beginning to navigate increasingly complex social relationships. At this age, they often experience confusing and possibly painful feelings they don’t know how to handle, and they may not be willing – or able – to let you know they’re struggling.
As the parent or caregiver, you must be able to recognize signs your child is in distress, even if they can’t or won’t tell you themselves. A pattern of troubling behavior may be the first indication that your teen needs help. For this reason I urge all adults with teens in their lives – parents, relatives, guardians, educators, coaches, etc. – to be familiar with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) list of “Warning Signs and Symptoms.”
Access to appropriate guidance and support will not only positively impact your teen’s long-term emotional health, it could even save their life, so it’s important that your child is able to be as open as possible about what they’re going through. They will need a safe space where they can talk honestly with someone they trust. If they don’t feel they have this safe space, your teen may adopt unhealthy or even dangerous strategies to deal with painful emotions and/or turn to questionable sources for guidance and support.
Many mental health organizations offer advice for how to provide a safe space for your teen to have difficult conversations, and I encourage readers to explore the many lists that are available online. I’ve compiled the following tips based on my experience:
- Let your child know that they are valued.
- Assure them you are there for them when they need you.
- Don’t pry.
- Be observant. Look for changes in their behavior that indicate emotional distress. (Keep NAMI’s list of warning signs handy.)
- Don’t lecture – they feel bad enough about themselves even if they do not always show it.
- Don’t judge – remove the shame and blame in your own thoughts.
- Don’t overreact, no matter what they tell you.
- Be calm.
- Validate their feelings.
- Don’t feel like you need answers – the most important thing is to listen.
- Be ready to help them access additional support.
A lot of this is easier said than done. Even with the best intentions, you may not be able to assist your teen. You may have unconscious stigmas or biases, or experience anger, frustration or fears that make communication between you difficult.
When I was a practicing social worker, I often encountered situations in which a loved one genuinely desired to be a trusted support for their teen, but their efforts were met with resistance. I recall working with a 16-year-old who suffered from severe social anxiety. Her mother wanted to be able to provide comfort, but her daughter shut her out. In counseling the teen shared that she had stopped confiding in her mother because their conversations exacerbated her feelings of anxiety. This insight led the teen’s mother to seek help on how to have difficult conversations, allowing their relationship to evolve into one that was healthier for both of them.
If what your child is going through is uncomfortable for you to discuss, or if your child needs help but they’re not able to be open with you, don’t judge yourself or your teen. Help them find someone else – ideally a counselor able to give appropriate advice and care – who can provide the safe space your child needs in order to talk honestly about what they’re experiencing.
An important note: If your child expresses suicidal or homicidal thoughts, take them seriously and get professional assistance immediately.
The following organizations are ready to provide support when your teen needs help:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline- 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) Spanish & English: Deaf & Hard of Hearing TTY 1-800-799-4889
TEXT HELLO to 741741 to connect with a live Crisis Text Line counselor 24/7
If you or your child need mental health care and cannot afford it, contact Rise Above The Disorder, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to making mental health care accessible to everyone: YouAreRAD.org