Tips for Youth to Talk to Their Family About Mental Health

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Youth talking to family Are you a young person feeling like you need help for a mental health concern, but are uncertain how to approach the adults in your life to ask for help?

First, it is so important to remember that you are recognizing that you’re not feeling like yourself and for wanting to do something positive to feel better. Your mental health is as important as your physical health, and there are providers who can help you with what you’re going through.

Are you’re experiencing concerns related to depression, anxiety, suicidality, self-harm or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? Perhaps you know something is bothering you but you don’t know what to call it, and it’s been a few weeks or a few months and you still feel “off.”

Here are some ideas from Yesenia Marroquin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to make talking with an adult about what you’re feeling easier:

Timing of the conversion

Look for a time when you have an extended period to talk about how you’re feeling without a lot of interruptions. As the family is rushing to get to school and work is probably not the best time. You want to be taken seriously and wouldn’t want your parent or caregiver to misinterpret why you are broaching the subject (such as trying to “get out of” going to school) or rush the conversation.

That being said, it’s better to share something than nothing. If time is tight, you could say: “I have something on my mind I want to talk to you about. Can we set up a time later to talk?”

Start with your feelings

When you begin the conversation, describe what you’re going through and how you’re feeling.

For someone who may be depressed, describing your symptoms could sound like, “I feel bored a whole lot. Things I used to like to do I don’t want to do anymore.” For others, it could be, “I’m not feeling as connected to my friends as before,” or “Things bug me more than they used to. I feel like I’m mad all the time.”

Someone who’s feeling anxious might say, “When it’s time for a test, I get so nervous I can feel my heart pounding and I know I can’t do it,” or “I’m so afraid I’m going to let my team down that I don’t want to even play soccer anymore.”

If you’ve looked up your symptoms online — being sure to use a reputable source, such as a hospital website, Child Mind Institute or Mental Health America — you can mention what you found and how what you’re feeling matches the descriptions.

Remember: Even if parents or caregivers have a lot on their plate, they care deeply about your physical and emotional health.

Worried about your parents’ reaction?

You may feel nervous or anxious about talking to your parents. There may be some fear of disappointing them or of making your caregiver sad or even angry. It may be beneficial to express these concerns upfront. You could say, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this for a while, but I’ve been nervous about how you would take it.”

It’s not your responsibility to take care of your parents’ emotions. Putting your concerns on the table allows the parent to clarify.

It may be helpful to understand why they may react strongly. Recognize that even if it’s difficult for your parents or caregiver to hear that you’re struggling, or hard for them to monitor their own emotions, they have these emotions because they love you and care about you.

If they seem angry, oftentimes anger is rooted in fear. If you’re nervous that you’ll disappoint them, consider whether you’re inferring that or if they have explicitly said something.  

Bit by bit is OK

You don’t need to share everything all at once if you’re not ready to do so. It might be helpful for you to think through what you want to share about your experience ahead of the conversation with your parent or caregiver. What am I comfortable sharing now? What may take a bit of time for me to share?

While you don’t want to hold things in, you know your parents and, in some situations, letting them know that you are having a tough time and want to see a professional is a sound strategy. A mental health professional can help you figure out what and when to share some information with your parent or caregiver.

Alternative support people

In some families, your parent or caregiver may not be the best person for you to talk to. If your parent’s or caregiver’s emotions are overly strong or they are dismissive of your concerns, either inadvertently or intentionally, you may need to pivot to alternative supports, such as an extended family member, guidance counselor, your primary care provider or a doctor. Those people may be in a different position to consider your current emotional pain with kindness and compassion while your parents are working toward that position.

You could ask the trusted support person to help you reach out to a mental health professional. You might say, “I need to talk to a professional so I can get a better understanding of what’s happening to me because I don’t want this to get worse.”

Whenever possible, it’s good to get help sooner rather than letting a concern grow bigger and bigger. The earlier you begin treatment, the less time you’ll be in pain and the sooner you’ll be able to move into a place of feeling better bit by bit — no matter what the mental health concern (like depression or anxiety) may be trying to convince you of right now.

Dangerous situations or emergencies

The reality is there are some kids and teens who are in dangerous situations because they face physical, sexual or emotional abuse. If this is what you face, inform a trusted adult (such as a teacher; guidance counselor; primary care provider) because you should not have to endure that. There are other solutions rather than going through this on your own.

Other times — for whatever reason — you may need help with an emotional or mental health issue immediately.

There are resources to help.

27/4 Crisis Help

  • Call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Text STEVE to 741-741 reach the Steve Fund’s crisis text line for youth of color.  
  • Call 866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678 to reach Trevor Project crisis counselors for those who identify at LGBTQ+.