Proactive discussions with long-term benefits
It’s not always easy to talk about mental health, but doing so can help us normalize our feelings and foster connections with loved ones—and the same goes for the little ones in our lives. Warm, open communication between parents and kids about tough topics is associated with better outcomes for kids’ well-being. From quick chats on the way home from school to bigger discussions in trickier times, there are plenty of stress-free daily opportunities to talk to your kids about mental health. For expert insights, we sat down with Jalene Davies, a BC-based clinical counselor with more than 15 years of experience helping adults better understand the children in their lives. She shared important advice for talking to children and teens about big life topics and how each might impact their mental health.
From moving schools to having a new little sibling, there are so many life changes that can impact your child’s mental health. If you’re having trouble getting them to open up about the day to day, Davies recommends keeping conversations relaxed. “I think parents need to be aware of how they’re presenting … because if they themselves are actually more anxious, they create that space before they even connect with their kid.”
Davies suggests easygoing situations like car rides as a good place to bring up topics with kids who are hesitant to chat. Keeping the environment relaxed will in turn keep both of you relaxed, helping the conversation to flow.
Since more than 70 percent of Canadian youth admit to experiencing bullying, discussing this topic with your kids is crucial. Whether you think your child may be a victim of bullying, or want to warn them of the potential harm their own words can have, Davies recommends asking lots of questions rather than jumping straight into problem solving.
Here are some questions Davies suggests as examples.
• “I was noticing there’s some kind of conflict with you and one of those kids on the playground. How are you feeling about that?
• “Have you told anyone about it?”
• “Do you feel you know how to handle it?”
Davies emphasizes parental support over solutions. “We really want to empower and equip our kids so that they can come up with solutions on their own,” she says.
Along with the confusing physical changes that come with puberty are the emotional changes. Social pressures coupled with changing estrogen levels for girls and testosterone levels for boys can cause mood changes, sometimes even resulting in anxiety, depression, and mood swings.
If you notice your kid is struggling, Davies recommends reminding them that what they’re going through is normal. Kids may believe that “they’re weird or something’s wrong with them,” explains Davies. Help remind them that mental health changes are normal, and that they’re not alone.
As kids age, they may notice more of their peers experimenting with various substances, from alcohol to cannabis. According to the 2021 to 2022 Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, 29 percent of students in grades 7 to 12 admitted to having tried an e-cigarette, 39 percent reported using alcohol in the past 12 months, and 18 percent reported using cannabis in the past 12 months. In the US, 62 percent of teens in grade 12 have abused alcohol, and 50 percent have misused a drug at least once.
If your child has already started using substances, it’s important to unpack what led them to this decision. Davies says that, for many young people, substance use represents a search for acceptance. For others, it’s a way to deal with deeper issues.
Parents will want to get to the root cause to best support kids. “If they’re self medicating for different reasons,” Davies adds, “we want to help them with that too.”
In addition to the social stresses of fitting in, relationships, and friendships that come with school, your child may feel academic pressures. There are two sides to this spectrum—the kids who are perfectionists with their work and those who feel like they can’t quite keep up.
For the perfectionist kids, Davies says it’s important not to minimize the anxiety that comes along with perfectionism. Instead, she suggests giving space for validation and recognizing their accomplishments.
And for those who are struggling with academics, Davies recommends focusing on their strengths: are they a visual learner? Hands-on learner? Great at sports? Focus on these strong points as well as productive ways to aid them in their academics, such as working with a tutor.
As the adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. That’s why, when it comes to any topic pertaining to your child’s mental health, don’t be afraid to reach out for help from a registered professional.
Davies says that, though it is important that parents feel they can support their kids through daily life, “talking to other people and getting some outside help is [also] really important.”
If the issues your child is facing start to interfere with their day-to-day functioning, Davies says that is a good sign that it’s time to turn to a professional.