I respect Kara Powell as much as any Christian leader in the USA. Today, there is an epidemic of kids struggling with mental health issues. No, it’s not easy being a kid today. I think Kara did her usual great job helping us with our kids’ mental health by asking the key questions. This is part two of a two-part series.
Worried About Your Teenagers’ Mental Health?
Thanks to both our research and time we’ve spent learning from amazing parents nationwide, we at the Fuller Youth Institute can offer you, me, and every other parent the following 7 conversation starters.
If you want to talk with your kids about mental health but you’re not sure where to start, we hope you’ll give one of these a try.
- On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst, how would you rate your stress and anxiety right now? I love this question that was first suggested by Dr. Clint Daniels, one of the mental health professionals featured on our Faith in an Anxious World parent podcast. A rating of 1–3 is a normal level of anxiety we all experience from time to time, and a 4 or 5 is probably handleable. If your child rates their stress at a 6 or above, they probably need more help from you and likely also a trained professional (see more on how to connect with a trained professional below).
- As you look back at your day, when did you feel most anxious? This is a great question to ask at dinner or bedtime to stay in touch with the people, places, and times that leave your child the most stressed. Just make sure you also answer the question so you’re having a dialogue and not a one-sided interview.
- What close friend(s) can you talk to about your stress and anxiety? Pinpointing another kid in math class, on the soccer team, or in youth group who can be a confidant can help decrease your child’s stress and increase their confidence.
- If you were feeling really stressed or anxious, or maybe even thinking about hurting yourself, what caring adult (besides me) could you talk to? Asking this not only helps your child identify an adult they could go to, but also lets you signal behind-the-scenes to that adult that your child views them as a safe place.
- I would be anxious, too, if I was navigating what you are. What do you think might be your next best step? Lisa Damour wisely suggests that we pair our empathy with an increase in our kids’ agency by helping them identify at least one baby step they can take to move forward.
- What can I do to best support you right now? Let’s stop guessing what our kids need and ask them directly. If they are too overwhelmed to name any tangible response, perhaps we should name some possibilities (e.g., “I could keep sitting here with you…or maybe I could try to distract you…or we could take the dog for a walk or go to the kitchen and have dinner together”).
- The next time you feel anxious, what core truth or phrase about yourself or God would you like to remember? I just asked one of my kids this question last week when I knew they were headed into a stress-filled few days. Helping our child identify a meaningful Scripture passage, worship song, prayer, or mantra they can repeat to themselves can give them the peace they need.
I recommend you keep these 7 questions handy. Don’t ask all of them at once; try them one at a time until you figure out what works best for your stressed child or step-child.
What if conversation isn’t enough?
If you sense your child needs more than supportive conversation, start by training yourself to better recognize symptoms of stress and anxiety in your child. In general, experts tell us to first look out for the following:
- anything more intense or pronounced than usual for our kids (e.g., more or less sleeping or eating, mood swings),
- signs that they are having more trouble managing their emotions,
- struggles dealing with the tasks of everyday life (like homework or chores), and/or
- unhealthy coping strategies such as the use of alcohol, drugs, or self-harm
Second, get the support you and your family need. Mental health struggles are not a solo sport. You, your child, and your family need to develop a team of caring peers and adults who can listen and journey with you.
Third, be quick to encourage your child to see a professional therapist. The brain is an organ, and as with our heart and liver, the brain sometimes requires additional help to function properly. If you don’t know a therapist who would be available, contact a few churches or high schools for referrals or search for virtual teletherapy via services like betterhelp.com or talkspace.com.
Many medical insurance policies cover (some or all of) the expenses of mental health treatment, and some therapists charge on a sliding scale. Please don’t assume that professional help is beyond your budget without exploring some cost-effective possibilities.
Fourth, trust your gut. If you think your child needs help from someone beyond you, they probably do. If you think you need to talk to a pastor or mental health professional about what you’re seeing at home, you probably do.
When I ask audiences if they would prefer to be a teenager now, I don’t raise my hand either. It’s hard being a young person today. And it’s hard parenting young people today. But hopefully by becoming more aware of these blind spots and experimenting with these conversation starters, we can extend the hand that’s most needed to the young people we care about most.
If you’re worried about the safety of a teenager you know, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away: 1-800-273-TALK or suicidepreventionlifeline.org
In addition, the Steve Fund Crisis Text Line is dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color that can be reached by texting STEVE to 741-741 or visiting stevefund.org/crisistextline.
This article first appeared here.