How to talk to your teen about your mental health difficulties
Parenting can be a tough job, even at the best of times. If you’re also experiencing mental health difficulties, you may be finding it harder to navigate the challenges of family life.
The idea of opening up to your teen about your mental health difficulties may feel daunting. And it’s natural to be unsure about what and how much to say, and how to actually go about having the conversation.
However, talking with your teen can help them to understand any changes they may have noticed in you. It can reduce their confusion and concern, reassure them that they’re not to blame, strengthen your relationship, and educate them about your struggles and the kind of help you might be getting.
If you’re thinking about talking to your teen about your mental health difficulties, here are some strategies you can use to help make the conversations effective, open and easier for both of you.
First, put on your own oxygen mask
We’re all aware of the safety brief used in aircraft emergencies: put on your oxygen mask before helping others. It’s a great analogy to think about when preparing to talk to your teen – because the better you understand what you’re experiencing, the more confident and comfortable you’ll feel talking about it.
If you need support in this, a good first step is to talk to your GP. They can refer you to a range of specialist support services such as psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, peer workers or community health services. It can be helpful to chat with a trusted friend, family member or partner, too.
There’s also a range of mental health organisations that provide useful information on the signs and symptoms of various mental health conditions, and on the kinds of resources, supports and treatments that are available. These include:
Think about what your teen might be experiencing
During their teens, young people start to build a more adult perspective on the world, on their relationships and on themselves. So, it’s natural for them to be both curious and worried about what you’re going through and how it might impact them.
When you’re preparing to talk to your teen, try to put yourself in their shoes and think about what they might be feeling and noticing. Some questions you can ask yourself include:
- What signs and symptoms might they have noticed?
- How might my behaviour be impacting my relationship with them?
- What might they find most challenging about my behaviour?
- Could they be worried about their own mental health?
- What information could I provide that will help them to better understand what they’re noticing?
Of course, these things can be challenging to think about, especially when you’re trying to manage your own experience, too. This is where a GP or mental health professional can play a crucial role, by helping you to understand more about what your teen might be experiencing and providing the right tools and support to back you up in conversations.
How to start the conversation
Talking to your teen for the first time about your own mental health is often the hardest part, and it’s normal that it might take some time to work up to it. Even a short initial chat can be really meaningful, because it shows them that it’s okay to talk about mental health and that you’re here for them.
Here are a few ways you could start the conversation:
- 'I’ve been feeling a bit down lately, and I wanted to chat to you about it. Is now a good time?’
- ‘You might have noticed that I’m [discuss your symptoms or behaviours]. I want you to know that I’ve been having difficulties with my mental health/have a mental illness.’
- ‘You might be worried that I’ve been pretty tired lately and don’t have much energy. This is a symptom of my [e.g. depression]. I get that it must be hard for you to see me like this, but I want you to know it’s not your fault and I’m looking to get support.’
You can also follow up conversation starters like these with questions for your teen, such as ‘Have you noticed anything in me that you’re worried about?’ Reassure them that you’re available to discuss any questions they may have, or suggest that they could chat to someone else they trust if that’s more comfortable for them.
Practical tips to keep in mind
- Pick a good time and place. If your teen tends to open up more when they’re alone with you, pick a moment when the house is quiet. Or, if they find it easier to ‘talk while doing’, you could chat while taking a drive, or walking together or having a coffee at a cafe. It’s also important to pick a time that works for you, too – when you feel calm and ready. It might be that your mood and energy levels tend to be better at a particular time of day, or you might feel less anxious or stressed on weekends.
- Share factual information. Give your teen fact-based information about your symptoms and behaviours that you’ve researched or chatted to a professional about. It can be helpful to let them know about any professional support you’re receiving, too, as this helps them to understand that while you want them to know about what’s happening with you, you aren’t expecting them to help you feel better or to be your main support.
- Enlist trusted help. If there are other trusted adults in your and your teen’s life – such as a partner, grandparent, close friend, teacher, coach or community leader – it can be helpful to get their support in talking to your teen. They could do this by facilitating conversations, by being available to answer any questions your teen might have when you feel unable to, or by simply just being there to support them.
- Offer support options. Let your teen know about mental health hotlines and chat services such as Lifeline and Kids Helpline that can provide support 24/7 if they need it. Be sure they know they don’t need to have a mental health difficulty to contact a helpline; they can contact them if they’re simply feeling upset or stressed or need to talk to someone about whatever is happening in their life. They can also find support through ReachOut Peerchat and ReachOut’s Online Community.
- Encourage questions. Let them know you’re open to them asking questions and raising any concerns they might have, whenever they want, whether that’s with you or someone else. If you’re feeling too unwell to answer their questions, you can also set up an ‘ask now, text later’ system, where they know you’ll get back to them later.
Take time for self-care
Building a shared understanding with your teen about your mental health difficulties is likely to be a process of many conversations, some of which might be harder than others. If you’ve taken that first step to talk to your teen, you can feel incredibly proud of yourself. It can be a really tough thing to do, so being kind and compassionate, towards both yourself and your teen, is really important.
You can find out more about self-care ideas for yourself and your family here.
Did you find what you needed?
- Yes - Here are some more tips on having a difficult conversation with your teen.
- No - You can call ParentLine for tips on how to have difficult conversations with your teen. Head here to find the direct phone number for your state or territory.
- I need to know more - COPMI – Parents have helpful information and resources about parenting with a mental illness.