Young children are usually quick to share when they’re feeling sad, mad, or left out. But when kids reach adolescence, many parents find that talking to them about their emotions is a no-go. They may talk up a storm with their friends but share the minimum with their parents or caretakers.
While getting teens to talk about their feelings isn’t easy, there are approaches parents, other loved ones, and mentors can use. We share tips for communicating more efficiently with teens, plus conversation starters for talking to adolescents about mental health.
Why Communicating with Your Teen Is So Important
Asking a teen a ton of questions and getting one- and two-word answers is frustrating for parents. Sometimes it’s so annoying that parents give up trying to maintain open communication. But that’s a huge mistake. When they have positive communication, parents and teens feel happier and more connected. Also, teens benefit in many other ways.
Research has shown that good communication between parents and teenagers has several evidence-based effects. Generally speaking, adolescents engage in fewer risk-taking behaviors during the teenage years when parent–adolescent communication is strong. Ongoing parent-child communication also lowers the risk of adolescent substance abuse and decreases teenage sexual activity.
In addition, young people who enjoy good communication with their parents are likely to experience better mental health. When parents communicate well with their teenage children, teens feel respected and understood. As a result, they have higher self-esteem. Healthy communication with parents has also been shown to lower depressive symptoms in adolescents. Clearly, getting teens to open up is worth the effort!
How to Get a Teenager to Talk About Their Feelings
Many parents struggle to initiate conversations about feelings with their teens. Even though they have the best of intentions, their kids can still shut down rather than open up. But with the right approach, though, it’s possible to get teenage kids to share their feelings more openly. Here are 10 ways:
#1: Don’t Just Talk, Do Something
For some teens, face-to-face communication is too intense. They feel like they’re on a hot seat, that every gesture and facial expression is under scrutiny. Rather than bombard them with questions over dinner, go for a walk or take a drive. Sometimes it’s easier for teenagers to open up when they don’t have to make eye contact. You might even write your concerns or questions in a notebook and hand it to them. That way, your teen has time to think about how they want to respond.
#2: Model Vulnerability
If you want your teen to share more openly with you, model openness yourself. For example, tell your teen about a time you made a mistake. Describe what you learned from it and how you grew as a result. When you share your imperfections and regrets, you indirectly demonstrate that you accept your kids’ imperfections, too. By revealing your humanness, you teach your teens that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Hence, they’ll be more apt to share something meaningful in return.
#3: Ask Open-Ended Questions
If you feel frustrated with one-word responses to your inquiries, stop asking your teens questions with “yes” or “no” answers. “Did you have fun at the party?” or “Are you ready for your English exam?” aren’t likely to yield much. Instead, try open-ended questions that encourage your teen to share more such as, “What was the party like?” or “How are you feeling about the English exam?” If your teen always answers “Fine,” when you ask how the day went, try, “Tell me about your day” instead.
#4: Listen Instead of Telling
The minute a teen complains about a problem in science class or a huge fight with a best friend, it’s tempting to jump in with advice. You instinctively want to make your child’s life easier. In those moments, resist the urge to fix. It’s in your best interest to talk less and listen more. Stop what you’re doing and focus on what your teen is saying and how they’re saying it. Active listening helps build a trusting relationship with your teen and lets them know you’re genuinely interested in who they are, not just in telling them what to do.
#5: Avoid Judgment
If you want your teen to continue talking to you, create a safe space so your child feels free to share what they’re really feeling and experiencing. This won’t happen if you’re quick to judge. If your teen tells you they don’t care about school or feel pressured to drink with their friends, don’t express your opinion or engage in power struggles. Allow them to have their own thoughts and feelings. Rather than judge, ask your teen to tell you more about how they’re feeling. Be curious. Respect their point of view. It’s possible to disagree without putting your child down. Avoiding judgment is the key to a healthy relationship and to getting your teen to talk.
#6: Don’t React Emotionally
Similarly, if you want your teen to open up, don’t fly off the handle if they tell you they engaged in self-harm or smoked marijuana at a party. Take some deep breaths and stay calm. If you can maintain an even tone and a neutral stance, you’re showing your child it’s okay to be honest with you. If you react with anger, your teen will feel defensive and more reticent to share openly with you in the future.
#7: Validate Their Feelings
The teen years are tender ones. Many teens don’t have enough life experience to know whether what they’re experiencing is common. They may feel like the only person on the planet who feels the way they do. When you validate their feelings as natural and typical, it eases their stress and anxiety. They feel understood and supported. And that makes it easier for them to open up to you. Teens ultimately want to have positive communication with their parents. Reassure them that their feelings make sense. Validation is a huge part of fostering healthy communication with anyone, especially teenagers.
#8: Focus on the Positive
It’s easy to focus on what your kids did wrong and let positive behavior go unacknowledged. Try not to dwell on your kids’ mistakes or their negative attitude. Instead, shift your focus to what they’re doing well. Praise their successes. Celebrate their accomplishments. Encourage their interests. Compliment them on their skills and talents. Everyone—teens included—shares more when they feel appreciated rather than criticized.
#9: Problem-Solve Together
You made all the decisions for your kids when they were young. Now that your kids are teens, it’s important that they be involved in problem-solving. Being able to advocate for themselves and propose solutions are important skills that will serve them as they grow. Maybe you disagree over what time they’re going to get home from their best friend’s house on school nights. Allow them to express their point of view and explain their reasoning. Discuss possible consequences and outcomes. Involving them in problem-solving supports teens in expressing their own opinions, which also supports them in expressing their feelings.
#10: Seize the Moment
When your teen initiates a conversation, stop and listen—even if it’s not a convenient time for you. If you turn your teen away, they may be hesitant to reach back out again. It might have been more difficult than you realize for them to approach you with what’s on their mind. If they are inclined to open up, drop what you’re doing and give them your all.
4 Ways to Start a Conversation About Mental Health with Your Teen
Teens can experience a wide range of mental health issues. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use disorders are just a few. Some teens struggle with suicidal thoughts or even make a suicide attempt. Hence, while initiating conversations about mental health isn’t easy, it is essential.
Here are a few mental health conversation starters to try with teenagers:
“What’s the hardest thing about being you at the moment?”
This is a powerful, open-ended question that allows teens to speak about their own lives. They may not have tremendous life experience yet, but they are experts on their lives. This question honors that expertise and allows them to share whatever they’d like. It’s an excellent launch question that can lead to more detailed mental health conversations depending on how they respond.
“I’ve noticed you’re sleeping more/spending more time alone/more fidgety than usual. I’m feeling concerned and would like to discuss it at a good time.”
When initiating a conversation about a teen’s mental health, it’s important to make statements of fact rather than voice opinions. Talk about behaviors you’ve observed, not what you think they’re feeling. If your teen brushes you off, don’t give up right away. Bring up the topic again later. When you do find a time to talk, avoid judgment. Don’t jump into problem-solving mode. Stay connected. Listen closely. Try to understand your teen’s life and see where the conversation leads rather than attempting to steer it in one direction or another.
“I’ve felt anxious and depressed myself at times. I’ve wondered if you might experience that sometimes, too. What would it be like to talk to me or a counselor about how you’re feeling?”
Revealing your own vulnerability shows that you’ve struggled with mental health challenges, but have found appropriate ways to manage them. How much you share depends on how old your teen is and the level of self-disclosure that feels right to you. Just don’t assume your experience is the same as your teen’s. Everyone’s journey is different.
“When life gets too hard or stressful, some people wish they weren’t here anymore. They think about death because they just want their pain to be over. I’m wondering if you’ve ever had thoughts like that.”
If you sense your teen may be having suicidal thoughts, it’s crucial to address the issue. But do so with great sensitivity. Find a time when your teen appears calm. Spend time doing something together before diving into such deep waters. Don’t trivialize their feelings. Empathize. Make sure they understand you don’t think they’re “crazy” or there’s “something wrong with them.” Emphasize how much you love them and that you’ll do whatever is necessary to help.
What to Do If Your Teen Expresses Suicidal Thoughts
If your teen admits to experiencing suicidal ideation, don’t panic. Take some deep breaths and try to remain calm. Don’t make the conversation about your worry or upset. Rather, keep your focus on your child. Let them know how much you love them. Tell them you feel for how much pain they’re in and that you’re going to get them the help they need.
If they express resistance, explain that seeking help for mental health issues isn’t a sign of weakness. Tell them that, on the contrary, it takes a lot of courage to acknowledge you’re struggling and could benefit from outside help. If your child is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department. For mental health concerns, call 988 immediately. A trained mental health counselor will help with resources, advice, and emergency care if applicable.
Teen Treatment at PrairieCare
At PrairieCare, we support adolescents and their families to navigate this complicated time. Through our core values of integrity, compassion, and determination, our team can help the whole family system when a teen is experiencing mental health disorders.
We offer a full continuum of care for adolescents that helps them heal, no matter where they are in their mental health journey. As part of their treatment plan, family therapy can unlock a stronger family connection through communication, improved dynamics, and safety planning.
We understand that healthcare can be complicated. Our AID Team creates the path so that teenagers and families can focus on healing. To learn more and access a no-cost mental health screening, call us at 952-826-8475.