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A Quick How-to: Checking In With Teens About Their Mental Health

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

It’s difficult for us to think about our kids struggling — especially when we may be struggling ourselves. However, it’s important for us to know that we can make a difference.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and nearly two years of isolation has amplified challenges with youth mental health. LGBTQ+ youth have suffered even more as support systems dissolved. If you are a caregiver, it’s quite possible that your young person may be struggling. One in five kids report having symptoms of depression or anxiety every day.

With the upcoming winter break from school, we need to check in with our young people. Here are some suggestions on how to start. 

Our young people may not tell us directly that they are struggling. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Has your kid had changes in sleep, weight, eating habits, hygiene, or other everyday patterns?
  • Have you noticed a loss of interest in the things they usually love, or quitting activities that they enjoy?
  • Are they withdrawing more than usual from friends, family, and community?

Choose a time to start a conversation when you are in a relaxed setting.

Avoid rushed transition times or times when emotions are already running high. Many caregivers have found that nearing bedtime and during car rides are times when a young person may be willing to open up.

Open the conversation by sharing a strength you see in them, or a caring statement about why they are important to you.

Then, ask permission.

“Would it be okay if we had a conversation about how you’ve been feeling lately?” This may open the dialogue; or you can make a gentle offering, “I’ve noticed that you have been quiet lately and spending more time alone.” Or, “You seem more worried than usual. What’s up?” “I’m here to talk anytime. No worry is too big or small.” Don’t worry if they don’t open up immediately. Don’t pressure them. Sometimes it will take repeated attempts or offers for a kid to feel safe to open up.

Listen. Try to listen more than you talk. 

Feeling listened to and validated with empathy for what they are experiencing is one of the most powerful forms of support an adult can offer. And it takes practice.  Plan to say half of what goes through your mind. When you want to respond or fix or offer advice, take a deep breath and lean back into a stance of nonjudgmental, attentive listening.

Remember to work in partnership with the young person.

Support them in exploring their own ideas for how to deal with the stress or particular situations in their lives. Offer information and reassurance, followed by a crucial question: “How does this land for you?” They may just want to vent. You know how it feels when someone offers you unsolicited advice. They might want to figure out the next steps on their own, with your guidance as backup. Another useful question is, “What kind of support would be best for you right now? Do you want me to help you figure out solutions, or do you want me to just listen?”

Getting professional help and finding support strategies are a sign of strength.

If a young person describes any risk of harm to themselves or others, it may be necessary to seek professional support.

Try starting with a primary care physician or reach out to your insurance navigator to see what mental health services and providers are available. And of course, you can always reach out to your school social worker, psychologist, counselor, or nurse to share your concerns.

Don’t panic.

Thoughts are just that: thoughts. But it’s important to take them seriously and talk with your child about how you can help keep them safe. We can also offer a young person disclosing a need for help with crisis phone and text lines: Suicide and Crisis Lifeline – 988 and text HOPELINE 741741.

Addressing anxiety is key.

According to the recently released 2021 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey, “More than half of all students surveyed (52.2 percent) self-reported significant problems with anxiety.” Anxiety is something everyone feels from time to time, but becomes a problem when it is pervasive, occurs every day, or interferes with normal everyday activities. Read up on coping skills and exercises for dealing with anxiety, and model and practice them with your child.

We need to support LGBTQ+ tweens and teens.

At least three-fourths of the LGB teens who responded to the 2021 YRBS survey reported significant anxiety. LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience mental health challenges as a result of societal pressures, homophobia, transphobia, and the like. We, as caregivers, can offer key supports.

Whether your young person has communicated their identity or not, speaking openly and acceptingly about gender and sexuality can help telegraph that you are an ally and a supportive adult. A 2019 Trevor Project survey of LGBTQ+ students found that the presence of at least one supportive adult reduced the chances of suicide attempts by 40 percent. For more resources on supporting Wisconsin LGBTQ+ youth, read up on our June 2021 DPI ConnectEd piece here. The Trevor Project hotlines (voice: 1-866-488-7386 or text: 678-678) support LGBTQ+ youth, creating a circle of stability, care, and hope.

There isn't just one magic thing we can do to support our young people and their mental health, but that doesn't mean that we need to overthink it. The most important thing to remember is to be present, and start with one moment, one conversation, and one offering: “I care about you. What’s on your mind?”  Starting is the key. Everything else flows from that.

This item was submitted by the Wisconsin DPI Student Services/Prevention and Wellness team, and DPI ConnectEd.