The do’s and don’ts of talking to your teen about therapy

Talking to anyone about your concerns for their mental health is tough, let alone your teenage child! These conversations can feel awkward. You may also be afraid that you will be misunderstood or make things worse by bringing your concerns up.


But the cost of not having these important conversations outweigh the “risks” of keeping silent. Lack of open communication takes away the opportunity to support each other and keeps you from learning important facts and information (e.g. is your teen going through puberty, are they engaging in healthy relationships?). Worse still, your teen may feel isolated or unseen, even if you’re just trying to give them space.


So here are some tips for keeping the line of communication open about mental health:


Do’s

  • DO Make eye contact and offer your full attention. When talking to them about their mental health, put down your devices and look gently at them. Show them you’re fully engaged in what they have to share and understand its importance.

  • DO Offer encouraging statements. Even if they’re just sharing a little, acknowledge their maturity in sharing and don’t pry. Simply reinforce their positive behavior with something like, “That’s a really thoughtful reflection”, “That was really brave of you to share your feelings about Sarah’s actions”, “I really liked how you labeled your feelings.”

  • DO Ask open ended questions. Be genuinely curious about what they have to share and ask clear, open-ended questions to help them continue sharing. A few good ones we like are, “How did you feel about that?”, “Tell me more”, “What happened next?”

  • DO Repeat back/summarize/paraphrase. what they said to show them you are listening and to also check that you are understanding what they mean. “So it sounds like what Sarah did was really hurtful to you.”

  • DO Space apart the conversations. by creating regular opportunities to speak about mental health. Family rituals like a weekly “spill your guts” session can help normalize being vulnerable together. Model talking about mental health challenges often, not just in big, serious conversations.

  • DO Space apart the conversations. by creating regular opportunities to speak about mental health. Family rituals like a weekly “spill your guts” session can help normalize being vulnerable together. Model talking about mental health challenges often, not just in big, serious conversations.

  • DO Plan conversation starters. by using books, movies, news headlines to open discussions about emotions and mental health. Inside Out is a great movie for younger teens to talk about emotions, and coming of age movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower can work well for older teens.

  • DO Consider how your teen likes to communicate. Choose a conversation medium that your teen would feel comfortable with. If they’re not big talkers, consider texting or even less traditional mediums like email, journaling together, or letter writing. Anything that works, works!

Don’ts

  • DON’T Ask specific, multiple, interrogative questions. This can make your teen feel cornered or like they have to defend what they think or feel. Questions like “Are you angry at Sarah? Did she hurt your ego? Do you feel betrayed?” can make them feel interrogated and even more confused about what they feel.

  • DON’T Try to fix the problems shared. Most of the time, teens just want you to listen. Jumping to solutions (e.g, “OK, you need to stop being friends with Sarah.”) can shut them off from wanting to continue the conversation. If you’re unsure whether they’re looking for you to listen or for your advice, ask! “Would you like me to listen or share my thoughts?”

  • DON’T Criticize them (or their friends). Again, teenagers are particularly prone to feeling judged. If you make a evaluative statement towards them or their friends, they may perceive it as criticism and be less open to sharing with you in the future. At this age, friends are a big part of your teen’s identity, so criticizing their friends is essentially a criticism of your teen’s judgement and choices. So as much as possible, avoid phrases like, “That was so immature of you”, “Sarah is a mean person”, “Well, you should’ve prepared more”.

  • DON’T Offer negative commentary or use absolute adjectives. They’re likely already feeling quite active emotions, and teens tend to feel high-highs and low-lows. So if they’re already down, adding negative commentary or using absolutes can send them over the edge into anger and helplessness. Avoid phrases like, “I think your friendship with Sarah is hopeless”, “This is the most terrible thing that could have happened”, “I don’t know how she’ll ever recover from this.”


Want expert input on how you can support your teen’s specific situation? Check in with a Cherish Coach for free.


Check out the next article in this series for tips on keeping an open line of communications about mental health with your teen.


Sharyl Wee, MA is working towards a PhD in Clinical Psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. She is passionate about fostering healthy family environments and parent-child relationships that help children grow-up into emotionally healthy adults! She specializes in working with children and families and is currently completing her clinical training at Dallas ISD Youth and Family Center.