Talking about mental health with your teen

man talking to boy on seats

The following information is for parents who do not need help with a crisis or emergency. If you need help right away, see our emergency help page.

This can help if:

  • you’re worried about your teen’s mental health, but are not sure if it’s serious enough to get help

  • you want to know how to get advice or support for your teen’s mental health

  • you want to know what kind of mental health support services for teenagers and young people are available.

Knowing how to approach the issue of teen mental health can be difficult. They may not recognise that there’s something wrong, or you may wonder whether the issue is serious enough for you and your young person to get help. The good news is that there are a lot of options for help and support, depending on what your child’s needs are, and what they’re ready for. Getting help early will give your teen the best chance of managing any problems before they become more serious.

Get help early for your teen

Most mental health difficulties first appear between the ages of 11 to 25, while the brain is going through a process of rapid development. Around 1 in 4 young people have experienced a mental illness by the time they’re 25. It’s important to look out for signs of mental health or emotional problems in your child from an early age and during adolescence. When mental health conditions are treated and managed early, the episode of illness is likely to be less serious and have a shorter duration.

Mental health conditions are generally episodic, which means that your child will likely experience periods of being unwell in between stretches of time where they seem to be doing better. Learning to spot the signs that your teen is feeling unwell early will mean that you’ll have the best chance of managing their wellbeing and getting them the support that they need.

Unfortunately, only around 30% of young people who experience psychological distress actually get the help that they need. This can be due to a number of reasons, including:

  • not recognising or accepting they may have a mental health difficulty

  • not believing their problem is significant enough to seek help

  • being unwilling to talk about their problem because of the stigma attached to mental illness

  • not believing that anything or anyone can help

  • environmental factors like cost, distance, inflexible opening hours and long wait times

  • close adults and friends not noticing or recognising the signs and symptoms and therefore not supporting the young person to seek advice.

When to get help for your teenager

Knowing when to get help for your child can be difficult. At times, the signs of mental health problems can be similar to the ‘ups and downs’ of being a teenager. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between ‘normal’ teenager behaviour and when there might be something else going on.

Mental health difficulties will surface differently for everyone. As a parent, you have an important perspective - you’ve spent years with your child getting to know their patterns of behaviours and emotions. You’re well placed to spot when your child’s own ‘normal’ has changed, or if they’re acting differently to usual. Remember to trust your instincts. If you think there might be something wrong, it’s best to chat with your teen and raise your concerns.

Not everyone who experiences distress or goes through a tough time has a mental health problem. Sometimes, your teen might be experiencing distress due to a life event, such as loss of a loved one, difficulties at school or changes at home.

If your teen is going through a tough time, and is finding the way they are feeling isn't improving even with the support of family and friends, then speaking to someone can be helpful, even if what they are experiencing isn’t a mental health issue.

What to do next for your teen

There are many different types of teenage mental health help and one way is not necessarily better than another. Different approaches will work for your child differently. Sometimes it’s a combination of approaches that works best.

The first thing to do is to have a conversation with your child and find out more about what’s going on. Things to remember when having a supportive conversation:

  • take a curious approach and be open to hearing their point of view. You might start the conversation saying, ‘I’ve noticed that you seem really down recently, how are you going?’

  • take it seriously and actively listen to what they are telling you

  • be positive in approaching the situation and support them to take a first step

  • be your child’s greatest advocate in getting the right help for them

  • be optimistic that you will get through this together.

Even if your teenager doesn’t open up at first, you’ll have shown that you’re concerned and are there for them. When they’re ready, they’ll know that they can come to you. Once you and your child have acknowledged there may be a mental health difficulty going on, it's time to look at support options.