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Posted by on March 12, 2020

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 1 in 6 teenagers will suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. Furthermore, about 3.7 percent of Americans experience mental health issues along with a substance abuse disorder (co-occurring conditions), which can often make the process of treating these conditions much more difficult.

While your teen’s mental well-being may fluctuate and change over time, you should never assume that the underlying condition is “just a phase” or can be ignored. Only a fraction of teens experiencing mental health issues will get the help they need, even in an era when the stigmas surrounding treatment have been measurably decreasing.

Mental Health Issues with Your Teen

One of the reasons why many teenage mental health challenges are overlooked is that, frankly, parents often find themselves unsure of where to turn or who to ask for help. Unfortunately, thoughts and prayers are rarely enough. If you want to help your teen live their best life, you will need to be proactive.

In this article, we will discuss eight proven tips for talking to your teen about mental health issues. While starting these important discussions will be just the first step of a broader treatment plan, it is clearly a step in a positive direction. By keeping these helpful, but important, pieces of advice in mind, you can play a valuable role in your teen’s recovery process.

1. Be Your Genuine Self

If you want your teen to listen to what you have to say, you will need to be genuine. While you may be uncomfortable bringing up a topic such as mental health, doing things such as using youth slang or making forced pop culture references will likely only make things even more uncomfortable. When talking to your teen, speak and act like you normally would, and make an effort to make the conversation less of an intervention and more of an ordinary chat. Just because the subjects you are talking about are in somewhat unfamiliar territory, that doesn’t mean you need to change who you are or how you communicate with your teen.

2. Avoid Anger and Accusations

Some mental health issues, particularly those exacerbated by substance abuse disorders, can create lasting problems within a household. Your teen may have emotionally hurt you in the past and you have the right to be upset about some of the choices they have made (whether caused by mental health issues or not). However, the first time you are speaking to your teen about mental health issues is not the time to air your grievances or to get upset with your teen. This is a time for being compassionate, for demonstrating that you care about your teen, and for showing that you are part of the solution. Anger and accusations will likely just create resentment.

3. Don’t Pretend to Be an Expert

While learning about teen mental health is beneficial for any parent, you should recognize that—unless you have a background in teen psychology—there is a limit to how much you can really know. When talking to your teen, avoid overstating the things you understand or, even worse, trying to make an unqualified diagnosis. Not only will a false diagnosis create potential problems down the line, but your teen will also likely dismiss any projections of expertise. It’s okay to admit that there are some things about mental health (or anything, for that matter) that you don’t know—that’s why the experts are there to help.

4. Acknowledge their Feelings

One of the surest ways to create a productive discourse with your teen is to acknowledge their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Even if the conversation isn’t going exactly as you imagined, mutual acknowledgments will help build credibility and show that you are on your teenager’s side. Phrases such as, “I understand why you might feel that”, “I value your perspective”, and “I believe you” can all be very productive. Speak to your teen the same way you’d want someone to speak to in a similar situation.

5. Start the Conversation in a Comfortable Setting

Parents who talk to their teens about mental health issues will often experience a significant amount of pushback. Even if your teen’s struggle has been “obvious” to your family, it is still very easy for your teen to be caught off guard and feel blindsided. Bringing up this conversation in public, or in front of other people, will likely cause your teen to act defensively. Instead, begin this conversation in a setting that is familiar, comfortable, and private.

6. Give Hope

Some teens are reluctant to receive mental health help because they are not really convinced that professional help can really make a difference. However, by giving them hope that things can potentially get better, they will be much more likely to take the possibility of getting treatment seriously. In some cases, a comment such as “Did you know that XYZ role model also experienced these issues? Here’s what they have to say about treatment.” While having pre-arranged talking points can sometimes seem a bit “canned”, doing what you can to increase the perceived legitimacy of treatment will be very beneficial.

7. Remind Your Child You Love and Support Them

Even if you don’t intend for things to be this way, it is not uncommon for conversations about mental health to seem a bit adversarial. As the parent of a teen struggling with these issues, it will be up to you to overcome the “burden of proof” and prove that you genuinely love and support. Ultimatums such as “start going to therapy or we are kicking you out of the house” will never be very effective for long. However, by saying “we love you and just want to help you live your best life”, your teen will be much more willing to get additional help.

8. Offer Additional Resources

While the initial conversation about mental health will often fall onto the parents, there is only so much help you will be qualified to give. In 2020, there are many different mental health resources for teens, including therapy, teen-focused residential treatment centers (RTC), and many others. By offering a bridge to whatever resources they need, your teen will be in a much better position to improve their well-being.


Few parents know how to talk to teens about mental health and substance abuse disorders, but it is a conversation that many parents will need to have. With these useful tips in hand, you can begin having a productive dialogue and help your teen get the help they might need.