“Listen To What Their World Looks Like”: Ways To Talk To Teens About Their Mental Health
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With its lack of responsibilities, teen life sounds like a breeze. But when you combine hormones, the influence of pop culture, technology, and daily peer pressure, you realize teenage years can be some of the most difficult. Seeing as it’s World Teen Mental Wellness Day, it’s a good time to think about how we can help teens cope with these pressures and more to improve their mental health.

I remember struggling with my mental health as a teen and having my feelings minimized as well as feeling invisible. ESSENCE spoke to Alexa Chandler, LSW, a teen therapist with Hearts Empowerment Counseling Center, and she said the feelings I had years ago are the same ones she notices her teens experience today, too. 

“We ignore teenage mental health a lot,” she says. “I think sometimes we think teens are just creating problems or they don’t know what depression is. They don’t know what anxiety is, but we’ve got to give them more credit. They know how they feel,” she said. 

Chandler says she’s also noticed increasing anxiety and social phobias amongst her young clients. 

Some of the most prevalent concerns for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 include depression, substance abuse, and suicide, according to the CDC. There was also a 40% increase in feelings of hopelessness and sadness among high school students between 2009 and 2019. 

So, how can you help the teens in your life? Here are a few expert tips Chandler says can make all the difference.

Listen to Them  

Chandler says that many teens don’t feel heard, which can cause them to feel alone, especially during the pandemic. She also asserts that listening is key to helping improve their mental health as they’re trying to steer through so many different transitions. 

“The teen brain is interesting, because this is the time where they’re learning themselves, developing relationships, learning what they like, [and] what they don’t like,” she says. “If we want to talk about brain development and brain activity, [a] teen’s brain isn’t fully developed until around 25 and 26.”

She adds,  “And a lot of times there’s so much pressure on them to be perfect, especially this new generation. They have social media and [pressure] [from] social media to be perfect and meet those standards. It really does impact them and how they feel about themselves at the end of the day.”

Not all of us know how to listen or what to say to show teens in our lives that we are there to support them. Chandler has some suggestions. 

“Tell them, ‘You may not want to talk right now, but I’m willing to listen. I’m here to listen to you when you’re ready. I’m here,’” she says. 

Avoid listening to respond as that could negate your teen’s experience, she also suggests. Instead, gauge what they like and understand their interests and motivations without judgment. This could mean asking them questions about their favorite musical act or fashion trends. Meet them where they are.

“Relate to them on a level that they can understand,” she says.

Provide Self-Regulating Tools 

You won’t always be there to help your teen regulate their emotions and it’s something they’ll have to learn to do alone at some point. Chandler recommends teaching them deep breathing techniques. 

“[Have] those mindful moments to just breathe and be mindful about your breathing. Your breathing is a really great way to relax your body,” she says. “The importance of breathing is really to calm yourself down, so then you can know how to respond.”

She also recommends helping young loved ones focus on things they can control and leaving the rest to work itself out. Her third tip is to get them to practice self care in little ways.

“Also, I think an important thing for parents is just to remind your child that it’s going to be okay,” she says. 

Try a Parent-Child Journal 

Trying to talk to teens can be like talking to a brick wall when they’re not vocal or struggle to open up. If you’re dealing with that challenge, why not try a parent-child journal, as Chandler suggests?

“I’ve been liking [these] mommy-daughter journals, or mommy-child journals, or father-son journals, where you can write to your child about your day [and] talk,” she says. “Because a lot of times teenagers don’t know what to say.”

Replace Judgment With Empathy 

Being judgmental towards teens can have a negative impact on their mental health. Chandler says that mental health awareness is still relatively new, so many past generations of parents may not understand mental health and as a result, unintentionally judge kids struggling with it. This could look like tagging behaviors such as a teen staying in their room as lazy, when in reality they are sad or overwhelmed. 

“Who does the child have to support them when they’re feeling like that? [They’re] feeling alone, isolated, and they don’t understand what’s going on with their body,” she says. 

Chandler adds “Just take a moment and listen to what their world looks like.”