Communication Between Teens, Parents, and Teachers about Mental Health
Parents: If your teenager was struggling with their mental health, would you know about it? Would your teenager tell you what is going on, or ask you for help?
According to a recent national poll, most parents do not believe their teens would confide in them. Only 25 percent of parents – one in four adults – confidently said that their teen would mention a mental health problem to them. The others were unsure if a conversation would play out.
This isn’t entirely surprising, since teenagers have a tendency to distance themselves from family and seek solace in friends and other adult figures. However, these statistics show that parents must be more vigilant in connecting with their teenagers. Amidst an ongoing youth mental health crisis, it’s important for parents to find ways to communicate with their teens and to recognize when their teen needs help.
As described by Ann-Louise Lockhart, PsyD, pediatric psychologist and owner of A New Day Pediatric Psychology: “Some teens feel like they and their problems are a burden to others. Others might feel like their parents wouldn’t understand or they might dismiss their concerns.”
So, if teenagers aren’t turning to their parents for help, where are they going? Are they finding support?
In the Face of Mental Health Problems: Who Do Teenagers Turn to for Support?
Some teenagers may keep to themselves, struggling in silence with issues like depression or anxiety. Others may confide in a close friend, or a trusted adult figure.
New data suggests that this ‘trusted adult figure’ is typically a teacher at school. In a survey by CVS Health/Morning Consult, published September 2022, educators shared their experiences with teenagers and mental health concerns. The vast majority of teachers surveyed – 78 percent – reported that they have been approached by a teen student with a mental or emotional health concern. In comparison, about 58 percent of parents reported that their teen came to them for mental or emotional support.
Interestingly, educators do not typically initiate these conversations. While most teachers report being concerned about adolescents’ mental health (even more so than parents), less than one quarter of teachers bring these conversations to surface. Most faculty are approached by teens who are struggling.
This is reassuring, to know that most teens are comfortable asking for help. However, parents still may wonder how they can get more involved or establish more trust with their teenager.
Why Do Teenagers Tell Teachers About Mental Health Issues?
In order to understand how to better help your teen, let’s first consider why teenagers are turning to their teachers for help.
Quite obviously, there are some teenagers who may not feel supported or comfortable to bring these conversations home. Some teens may have a difficult home life or lack relationships with their parents. In these cases, they may feel more comfortable talking to a teacher about a mental health concern.
In fact, about 94 percent of teachers cited that family dynamics and relationships were some of the most prevalent issues that teenagers brought forth at school. When teenagers need to talk about something happening at home, or with their family, they are more likely to go to a neutral source.
School is a neutral environment for teenagers, where they can talk to teachers, counselors, principals, and other trusted staff about issues at home or in life. Schools also have resources to help teenagers and administrators who can provide support, especially if they do not receive that support at home.
Of course, family dynamics are not the only challenge faced by teenagers today. Other issues that are contributing to mental health problems, as cited by teachers, include:
- Self-esteem (cited by 91 percent of educators)
- Bullying and social dynamics (cited by 85 percent of educators)
- Social media usage (cited by 83 percent of educators)
- Issues stemming from gender, race, and sexuality (cited by 72 percent of educators)
Many teenagers feel comfortable bringing these issues up to their teachers, because of the neutrality and support offered within the school system. Teens may not want to burden their parents with this information or cause their parents worry. Adolescents may also fear how their parents will react, and therefore keep these conversations at school.
However, there are certain topics that are likely to be talked about at home. Issues that parents cite as negative mental health factors for teens include:
- Academic pressure (cited by 52 percent of parents)
- Self-esteem (cited by 51 percent of parents)
- Pandemic-related stress (cited by 48 percent of parents)
- Bullying and other social dynamics (cited by 43 percent of parents)
In order to better connect with your teen, it is important to understand the potential issues your child may be facing and the ways in which you can help. Below we provide advice for parents to communicate with their teenager, and begin initial conversations about mental health.
How to Communicate with Your Teenager about Mental Health
Most parents today feel confident that they could recognize an emerging mental health disorder in their teenager. There are clear signals of mental illness in teenagers that could raise a red flag. While these are important for parents to know, parents should also understand some techniques for enhancing communication with their teenager at home. It’s great that educators can play a part in helping teens get help for their mental health struggles, but parents can and should play a complementary role, too.
CVS Health President and CEO Karen Lynch puts it simply: “Mental health can, and should, become a part of everyday conversation in the classroom, during lunch hour and at the dinner table.”
The best way parents can connect with their teenagers is to establish open communication at home. Be a trusted resource for your teenager. Let them know that you are there for them, no matter what. And if they come to you with a problem, do not judge them, do not punish them, and do not react with haste. Rather, keep these tips in mind.
If You Are Trying to Connect With Your Teenager:
- Encourage your teen to come to you with any problems or concerns.
- Be sure to be open and honest with your teen, too.
- Do not pressure your teen to talk if they are not ready.
- Be observant, and pay attention to any abnormal behaviors.
- Show that you trust your teen, and that they can trust you.
- Give your child praise and find opportunities to be positive and encouraging.
- Don’t be harsh or irrational with punishment. Instead, set boundaries and make sure your teen understands why certain rules are in place.
- Spend time with your teenager. This includes sharing regular meals together.
- Become more engaged in school activities, or even help with homework.
- Know who your teen is spending time with, and how they are spending their time.
- Help your teen facilitate healthy decision-making.
- Communicate regularly with your teen’s teachers and administrators. Remember, they may know about issues that you do not.
If Your Teenager Comes to You With a Problem:
- Listen to your teenager, wholeheartedly.
Create an open space where your teen can talk about their feelings, without interruption or pressure. Refrain from asking too many direct questions, but rather stick to open-ended questions when there is a pause. Your teen is more likely to open up if they do not feel like you are prying for information. Be sure to take in what your teen is explaining, do not just think about what you are going to say next.
- Always validate your teen’s feelings.
Many teens are worried that their parents won’t understand their mental health problems, which is why they may not turn to parents for support. With this, it’s important to remember to always validate what your teen is feeling. Do not brush off or downplay your teen’s feelings in any way. Show your teen that you empathize with them by reflecting on what they say. For example, “Wow, that sounds very difficult.” Or, “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
- Control your reactions and your emotions.
Try not to let your temper, or your worry, overwhelm the conversation. Teenagers have a propensity to come off rude or short-tempered, but as a parent, try to keep your control. Unlike your teen, you have the ability to control your emotions and think very rationally when you are upset. If something your teen says upsets you, try to take some deep breaths before responding. If you are both too upset to continue the conversation, take a break. It’s okay to pause a discussion until everyone is calm and ready.
- Have a plan for seeking help.
If your child is struggling with a mental health concern, they will rely on you to find them help. This could mean regular, outpatient therapy or counseling, or longer-term mental health treatment. Take stock of resources in your area or call some mental health treatment facilities to research your options. If you do not know where to turn, you can always contact your family doctor. Your pediatrician or family doctor can provide a mental health assessment or refer you to someone who can help.
You may also call Turnbridge for guidance and support. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment facility for adolescents and young adults. We help teens who are struggling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, behavioral disorders, substance use disorders, and more.
Call us today for a confidential discussion about your teen’s mental health concerns: 877-581-1793.