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Teen Health and Safety

How to Speak to Your Teenager About Mental Health

Nedra Glover Tawwab

Licensed Therapist and Relationship Expert

Conversations about mental health can be daunting for parents to have with their teenagers, but therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab says they don’t have to be.

Nedra Glover Tawwab is a therapist, public speaker, and writer who helps people strengthen their relationships with their children.

“Oftentimes as a parent, we forget what it was like to be a kid, and we immediately step into the role of telling kids what to do,” Tawwab says. “It’s so important to just give them the space to talk.”

In her private practice, Tawwab works primarily with adults, but she started out working with kids and teenagers. “I really enjoy working with teenagers because they are so honest,” Tawwab says. “They’re in this phase of thinking that everything is a big deal, and it really is, and they don’t have an adult to talk them through some of these very challenging things. They have their friends, but their friends are just as misinformed as they are, so it’s not always the healthiest person to get advice from. It helps to be able to talk about these things with a professional who won’t get you in trouble.”

Setting boundaries

One of Tawwab’s favored strategies for parents and teens is setting clear boundaries. She recently conducted a poll on Instagram asking people whether they had ever had their diary read by a parent.

“It’s such an unfortunate boundary violation,” Tawwab says. “Kids deserve privacy, too. We tell kids, ‘Write it down, get your feelings out,’ and then the ultimate violation is someone reading through that stuff. It really sets us up to not be able to express our feelings. There are so many adults that carry that inability to be open because they’ve had that very significant boundary violated in their teen years.”

Tawwab says a therapist’s office can be a safe space for teenagers to speak to an adult, but it’s too often thought of as a space for only very serious mental health problems. “So often therapy is painted as a problematic space,” Tawwab says. “I like to just treat it as a space where people can talk. You don’t have to have problems or feel like something significant has to be going on. It’s helpful to frame it as a space to have a person to talk to.”

Opening up

Parents also have difficulty talking with their kids about mental health issues because they focus on their kid’s behavior. “Oftentimes, people don’t know what mental health issues look like because it comes across as getting bad grades, skipping school, or always wanting to stay in their room,” Tawwab says. “The parent might just think, my kid is lazy, or my kid is getting bad grades, when there are a lot of other things going on. As a therapist, my job is to get into the backstory.”

The impact of COVID-19 on teenagers’ mental health has been particular intense. “So much of your teenage experience is being with your friends and being in these social settings,” she says. “For teenagers, that is being stripped away right now. Paying attention to the mental health of teenagers, trying to help them celebrate their milestones, and having a friendship bubble of folks they can be in contact with is so important right now.”

The most important thing for parents to remember is to make time for conversations with their kids and to take an interest in their lives. “With teenagers it becomes a little more difficult because so much of their time is with friends, or they enjoy time alone, but spending quality time together certainly sets the stage for parents,” Tawwab says. “Parents can relate if they just take the time to consider what it was like for them to be a teenager.”

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