Talking about your feelings can be scary, especially for children and adolescents. Experiencing mental health challenges can be isolating, and many times the fear of stigma or judgement outweighs speaking honestly and openly. Adolescents can find it difficult to express themselves and families often ask us how they can better support a child who may be experiencing challenges with their mental wellbeing. In this guide, we outline how you and your family can support a loved one experiencing mental health issues.
Create a safe environment – Before you bring up topics about mental health, make sure the physical space is comfortable with minimal distractions. Do they have a favorite spot outdoors? Are they typically distracted by the TV or social media? Is the area private or are there too many people around? These are factors to consider when deciding WHERE and WHEN to offer support and a listening ear.
Speak from your perspective – Try not to approach the conversation in an accusatory tone. Instead of “You do this…” Try starting with “I have noticed you have seemed more sad/angry/irritated lately..” Try to be specific and offer examples of when you have struggled with your own mental health. Showing a willingness to be vulnerable and honest yourself sets the stage for your loved one to feel less alone and more comfortable in talking about what they have been experiencing.
Ask how you can help – Your loved one might already have an idea of how they want to tackle their mental health challenge. Be prepared to support in whatever way they need you. This might look like just validating their feelings, or in some cases following up with professional resources. Whatever their response may be, don’t treat them any differently. Mental illness can feel isolating and if they chose to open up it is vital they feel supported and heard.
Put words to feelings – If they are receptive to support, ask them to write down how they have been feeling. This is a great way to start to organize their thoughts and get a clearer idea of what they have been experiencing. You can also look at an online symptom checker. Using one can help make sense of chaotic thoughts and feelings. Keep in mind, this would just be a starting point and is not an adequate substitute for a professional diagnosis.
The reality is that many adolescents are confused by what they may be feeling and will often opt to keep the issue to themselves. As a family member, you can make sure they feel comfortable if they choose to open up. Assure them that they are not defined by their mental health and that you will be there to support them however they may need it. Ultimately, opening up about mental health is a positive first step and the most effective way to remove the stigma around it. The more comfortable we all are about sharing our experiences, the more acceptance will develop in our immediate and extended communities.