You might find it difficult to talk to your teen about sensitive, complex or emotional topics. Over the years, you might have handled conversations about drugs, sex, relationships, religious beliefs, and a host of other subjects that you might not have seen eye to eye on. If your child has recently received a mental health diagnosis, you might not know how to broach the topic to answer your teen’s questions, assure him or her that you are supportive, and get an understanding of how he or she is feeling. Here are five tips for having a conversation about your teen’s mental health diagnosis.
1. Inform Yourself
If your teen wants to talk now, then now is the time to talk. It’s important to meet your child’s needs regardless of whether or not you feel ready. If he or she hasn’t approached you yet, however, it’s okay to take a bit of time to do some research on their condition and to speak with the appropriate physician. While you’re certainly not expected to have all of the answers, it’s helpful to have at least a rudimentary understanding of what the mental health diagnosis means.
Don’t use a lack of knowledge as an excuse to put off difficult conversations for too long, however. Avoiding the topic can make your teen feel like you don’t care or that you are blaming him or her for the diagnosis. Get some basic facts, and then be ready to approach your child with confidence. Keep in mind that even if you make a mistake, being supportive and willing to discuss whatever is on his or her mind will go a long way.
2. Assure Your Teen of Your Love and Support
First and foremost, your adolescent wants and needs to know that you support him or her. No matter what actions and circumstances have led up to this diagnosis, it’s vital that you understand and convey that mental illness, a substance addiction or an eating disorder is not your child’s fault. Let your teen know that you are in their corner, ready to help however you can.
Let them know that you will be following the recommendations of the health care professionals involved. Paying close attention to what your child’s doctor is saying will help you to avoid reacting incorrectly. For example, while your first inclination might be to protect your teen, his or her treatment plan will rely on you to insist upon adherence. If you or your teen have valid concerns about treatments, you can always seek a second opinion, if necessary. This assures your teen that you’re taking his or her feelings into consideration and that you’re behind them every step of the way.
3. Answer Questions Truthfully
Teenagers are usually able to handle frank answers to difficult questions. Keep in mind that it’s likely that your teen will be responsible for his or her own mental health care in just a few short years (or less). Don’t try to keep information away from your almost-adult. When the tough questions come up about prognosis, the future, medications or anything else, answer them as honestly as you can.
Remember that it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you don’t know the answer to a question. Offer to help your teen find out the answer, or give him or her the tools to find the answer on their own. The diagnosing or treating doctor is an excellent source of reliable, relevant information. Discourage random Internet sources, because there’s a lot of poor information that a confused or frightened teenager might not realize is faulty or untrue.
You may also need to be proactive about dispelling myths that your teen might have heard from friends. For example, your child might think that he or she is predisposed to violence, simply because it’s a common myth that those with mental illnesses tend to be violent. Ask some leading questions so you can determine whether your child is internalizing some of this type of misinformation.
4. Don’t Make the Mental Health Diagnosis the Only Thing You Talk About
While it’s vital to keep the lines of communication open and foster an atmosphere where your teen feels safe coming to you whenever there are concerns, it’s just as important to talk about other things that are unrelated to the diagnosis. Remember that your teen is an individual who loves sports, cooking, dance, art, music, or whatever his or her favorite activities are. Encourage him or her to continue to participate in their passions as much as feasible during the treatment period, and don’t be afraid to talk about light, frivolous topics, such as what happened during an episode of a television show or who won the ballgame last Friday.
It’s important that you convey to your teen that they are much more than their mental health diagnosis — and also important that you keep that in mind yourself, too.
5. Seek Professional Help
While you will undoubtedly seek the appropriate help for your teen as far as treatment is concerned, don’t forget to seek counseling for yourself and others in your household. This will help you understand and communicate with your child as you learn more about what he or she is going through. Some places that you might look to find treatment options include a national hotline, group therapy offered by your child’s treatment center, or a private psychologist or counselor who specializes in the type of illness that your teen is being treated for. A professional can help you if you run into stumbling blocks as you have difficult or stressful conversations with your adolescent.
As a parent, you are going to be the first line of support for your teen, no matter what he or she is going through. Most teenagers want their parents’ approval, and it’s so important that you keep that in mind as you go through the process of dealing with your child’s mental health diagnosis. Be on his or her side throughout the process, and your support will help you through any difficult conversations that you need to have.