How to get beyond the one-word reply when talking to your teen

By Leslie Dragon

Right by you

As a mom with two teenagers and a tween, I know how hard it can be to start up a meaningful conversation with my kids. Most times I’ve tried it, they’re too busy playing on their phones, or if I manage to get them to look up for a second, they’ll respond with one-word replies, grunts, blank stares or restlessness.

Sound familiar? We all know how important it is to talk regularly with our teens and find out how they’re doing, but sadly, this is an all-too-common scenario – and it’s even more apparent when it comes to the topic of mental health.

In a poll with youth contacting Kids Help Phone, half of them said they would talk to a friend if they were facing mental health problems, with Mom a distant second at 30%. One in five said they wouldn’t share their pain with anybody.

That last number is shockingly high when you consider how mental illness has become one of the most pressing issues facing our children today, and the tragic consequences of not addressing this important issue:

  • Every year, an estimated 1.2 million Canadian children and youth are affected by mental illness.

Right by you 2We as parents can play a vital role in supporting our teens’ mental well-being, and the first step is talking more about mental health at home.

My organization, Partners for Mental Health, created the Right By You campaign to improve mental health and prevent suicide among youth. The campaign aims to provide parents and caregivers with practical tools and guidance to spark more meaningful conversations with teens.

Here are five tips to help you get started in establishing regular dialogue with your kids, taken from the “Ask the Right Questions – The Basics” resource at www.rightbyyou.ca:

  1. Show unconditional love. Whatever happens in life and in your relationship with your teen, it is critical that they know you love and care about them unconditionally.
  2. It’s a two-way conversation. It’s important your teen doesn’t feel like they’re being interrogated or they don’t have your trust. You’ll get the most out of the conversation if you also share your own ideas, thoughts and experiences. Make sure to avoid dominating the conversation, lecturing or providing unsolicited advice.
  3. Park your emotions at the door. It can be challenging but it’s important not to let your emotions get the better of you and that the conversation be non-confrontational. Becoming angry or overreacting can upset your teen, or worse, silence any hope of future dialogue. Instead stay calm, listen and ask open-ended questions.
  4. What’s your goal? What is the one thing you want to communicate or learn from your teen? Focus on the information you want to relay to (or receive from) your teen.
  5. Have lots of discussions. Your goal isn’t to deliver a lecture, but to build a rapport and trust with your teen over time. Depending on the subject, they may only feel comfortable talking for a few minutes, and sometimes not at all. Don’t get discouraged. When it comes to important topics, teens want to hear from you and know that you care. Accept that the dialogue will unfold over time in bits and pieces.

Getting teens talking does take an ongoing effort, but it’s worth it to build those close and genuinely supportive relationships. Check out the many other tools available on the Right By You site that can jumpstart those important conversations:

Questionnaire: A quick 10-question quiz that serves up customized content and tools to support teen mental health based on your answers.

The Right By You Guide for Parents & Caregivers: A free downloadable guide for parents and caregivers to learn more about teen mental health, including myths and facts about mental illness and suicide; tips on talking about mental health; and information on where to find help.

Discover the Best Times & Places to Talk: A list of the top five times and places to spark a successful conversation with your teen.

Weekly Tips: A 12-week email series providing more information, ideas and insights to further engage your teen and support their mental health.

It’s time for us to start talking with our kids about their mental well-being. You never know when that one conversation could make all the difference.